Tuesday, March 6, 2012


I have been out of touch with the blog for quite some time. I have been  so focused on other pursuits (especially newspaper reporting), that I have not had as much time to focus on game writing  - or this blog - as I have in the past.

Oddly enough, the page views on this blog have nearly doubled since I slacked off more than usual. I think the message is clear - folks have been waiting for me to pipe down!

In the meantime, I think I will make the hiatus official. It is time to re-energize.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Inspiration from Guy Sajer's Forgotten Soldier

This post is overdue - I was knocked out of several days of normal productivity by a bout of illness and then computer problems. This caused me some problems with a number of competing deadlines and the blog simply had to wait.

In the meantime, I did finish up Guy Sajer's The Forgotten Soldier, an autobiographical account of a Franco-German soldier who spent nearly three years on the Eastern Front in World War II. It was even more depressing than I recall from reading it 14 years ago. I'm not going to do a review of the work, except to say that I highly recommend it. There's apparently some conflict regarding the authenticity of the work - you'll have to make that judgment yourself. I believe its based on actual experiences.

Beyond the sobering enrichment this book offers (akin to All Quiet on the Western Front) to a reader, there's plenty of interesting things in the book that lend themselves to wargaming the period - and I must say that I still have a hard time separating what I would consider technical details (ie. equipment, orders of battle, etc) from Sajer's emotional overall account. Regardless, here goes...

Obsolete Equipment
I was rather surprised how older model tanks and anti-tank guns showed in Sajer's accounts. Granted, they often appeared in last ditch defenses and the like, but I really didn't expect that Panzer I's and Panzer II's would be used in late 1943/early 1944. I recall the Panzer I's were used to tow trucks through muddy terrain during a retreat and another early Panzer (II or III) was employed in a ditch during the Prussian city fighting in late 1944. Even the 37mm anti-tank gun shows up, providing close support along with panzerfaust teams. On a sort of related note, Sajer even mentions trucks painted in blue in the late war years - I would have expected everything to have been in dunkengelb by then. Also, there always seems to be some foreign trucks impressed into service.                                                    

Anti-Partisan Actions
Sajer, whether a supply truck driver or as a member of the Gross Deutchland Division, encountered partisans more often than I would have expected. Sometimes their numbers surprised me, as well. Plenty of small actions and company-sized operations are described in the book. Again, this is where older equipment shows up (esp. the Panzer Is). Also, I believe Sajer's company mounts their machine guns on trucks during one operation.

For what was a gigantic tank battle, we only see a few tanks in Sajer's account. His unit spends its time infiltrating Russian entrenchments and fighting its way through villages. Their defensive actions in a village prior to the German retreat would make a good company-sized game: plenty of machine gun nests, coordinated with a few mortars, infantry guns, and a bit of self-propelled artillery (or anti-tank gun).

From a gaming perspective, there's a lot of unusual things one could add to their tabletop scenarios and miniatures that one doesn't expect to see late war, based on The Forgotten Soldier. Honestly, I'm only talking a little bit about how Sajer's accounts might alter the typical expectations one might have for gaming the Eastern Front.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

New Year

I want to thank all the readers - old and new - who make an attempt to keep up with this blog. I do hope you find something of interest and value here as I ramble on. 

I've been thinking a little bit how on how I want to handle blog content and updates. Offhand, I think I'm going to make an effort to write at least one post per week. I've averaged better than that, but I think some more consistency is worth it. I've thought about archiving some of the older material  as well. Not sure just yet.

The next blog or two will likely focus on Guy Sajer's The Forgotten Soldier, the autobiographical account of a Franco-German soldier serving in the Wermacht on the Eastern Front (up until the last days of the war). It's been 14 years since I read this book and I must say I see a lot of inspiration to bring to the wargames table. In the meantime, I highly recommend this book 

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Fifth Century Franks in Gaul: Modeling Ideas

Guy Halsall made some insightful comments regarding tabletop representations of the Frankish troops in Roman service in 5th Century Gaul in a recent post (see Comments). In short, he suggested those troops ought to have some distinctive elements of Frankish and Roman appearance - ie. Frankish axes and top knots, but Roman uniforms.
While I have never built a Frankish army like this (I've got an Essex 15mm Early Franks DBA army from the mid-1990s...), I think it could be done with some existing ranges of figures and accessories.

Gripping Beast offers weapon packs of the Frankish axe, which makes it a cinch to give Late Roman figures a quick and easy Frankish look. But what about the top knots? Well, with helmeted figures, no one will be able to tell. However, it would be nice to tell on at least some of the figures. So unless you are looking to do some head conversions, what can you do?

I think some Early Franks figures might could pass for Franks in Roman service if painted right. What I would look for is unarmored types whose tunics look like Late Roman tunics; avoid overlong tunics and skip the fur vests.  Equip them with oval shields and paint them to look like your other Roman infantry as opposed to giving them the striped Frankish tunic.
In general, I think some of Wargames Foundry's Early Franks/Saxons "Spearmen Standing" might be the best candidates for this.

The Horsa figure from the Wargames Foundry Arthurian characters pack (he's got the top knot, short scale shirt, and a sword) seems like a good officer candidate. As far as that goes, a number of GB's Early Saxon/German noble warriors could pass for some decent Roman-helmeted officers as well - just add some Frankish axes. Alternately, I suppose these guys could work as well-armored rank and file.

In the meantime, I wish everyone a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Winter Reading: Halsall's Genesis of the Frankish Aristrocracy

While I don't have much to add directly to my thoughts on the Roman/Frankish armies operating within the Loire region of Gaul in the mid-5th Century, I do recommend that you take some time to read Guy Halsall's s four-part series on "The Genesis of the Frankish Aristocracy" over at Historian on the Edge (link takes you to Part One).
If I recall correctly, Halsall has advised he will not keep the series up indefinitely, so don't wait.

What does this socio-economic-military piece have to with wargaming the period? Well, lots if you are trying to put the Roman and 'Barbarian' factions into a proper context of the Fourth and Fifth Centuries AD. It certainly made me wonder how much the Franks serving as bodies of imperial military forces might have considered themselves as Roman as the state they fought for. Could one really tell the difference between one Roman army composed of Franks and another that was not, especially if both purchased clothing and equipment from the same kinds of imperial sources (whether government-issued or otherwise)?

How do you interpret that for the tabletop? I would imagine it means predominantly using late imperial figures, mixing in more 'Frankish' elements the further away from 460 you get. If nothing else, I'm not convinced the stereotypical Frankish warrior images - top-knots, throwing axe, round shield - are necessarily applicable to what was going on inside mid-Fifth Century Gaul.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

It's Elemental

I took a bit of my own advice regarding arcane wards, portals, and traps for the elemental-built level of a my Pathfinder group's recent dungeon delve into the lowest reaches of ancient dwarven catacombs. In short, I took typical game traps and simply allowed characters to use Arcane Knowledge instead of Perception to detect/understand a magic ward/trap; instead of Disable Device, they used Spellcraft to suppress, bypass, or otherwise safely negotiate a number of elementally magicked areas encountered during the heroes' underground ramblings.

For the most part, these were just simple affairs applied to doorways and the like. I did use a standard spiked pit trap and jazzed it up like some kind of earth elemental worm creature. As far as game mechanics go, it was nothing more than a trap that could move around in a room.

One of the key parts of the climactic encounter in the undead-filled temple (see last post) was to allow the heroes a chance to prevent - or at least hamper - the transmission of a a large lightning elemental to the temple via a large (10' x 20') black marble altar which served as a kind of portal between the planes when properly activated. I reasoned the mighty being was only sending a portion of his essence to aid the heroes' cultist foes. I also reasoned that such a challenge would be the equivalent of a lightning trap - if they could overcome the trap, they could further limit the elemental creature's avatar (for lack of better word) from arriving in the temple - ie. shrink him down to a medium-sized or small elemental instead of taking on a ten-foot tall man-shaped angry cloud of thunder and lightning. If they failed the disarm attempt, they faced a lightning attack. It seemed appropriate that the monster could channel its electrical energy through the altar/portal if the heroes could do the same.

This was a great way to give the players some choice - take a chance on getting zapped to reduce the effectiveness of a truly tough enemy or just let him come on. As it turns out, they failed in their attempts, but that just made things more exciting. This is where we became much more familiar with weapon resistance rules.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

I Advance Masked

I couldn't resist the Andy Summers reference for this piece. I'm sure it will all make sense once you have recovered from Police-related nostalgia and read the latest dispatch from my dungeon.

I wanted to bring back that hint of Lovecraft that appeared fairly regularly in 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and fit so well with the elements of the game's pulp fantasy appeal. Beyond the slimy and tentacled horrors such as mindflayers, beholders, and aboleths, players got to glimpse at the Elder Ones in any number of ruined (or active and secret) temples and cults. A step further, we find gods like Tharizdun (god of entropy and madness) and god-like elemental powers playing well with the sphere of alien intelligences bent on spreading destruction in the world. Pictured right is the cover to The Temple of Elemental Evil, the classic mixing of eldritch, elemental, and fiendish creepiness.

It's certainly easy enough to place those elements in a regular dungeon-delving setting. On the group's first outing they took a medallion shaped like a mindflayer head from leader of hobgoblin mercenaries, so from the start they know that they face a faction of horrific overlords and probably a mixed of sneaky and/or crazed cultists. In time, they learn of an as yet-explored abandoned(?) temple in the wilderness. Even better, they begin to piece together a cult-driven conspiracy within the safety of the adventuring base, a human/dwarven mountain enclave.

When it came time to expose the secret horrors playing in the lowest levels of the town's ancient catacombs (built by dwarves and elemental beings), I had to make it memorable without being too overpowering for a low-level group. I re-purposed some game mechanics for traps and monster powers and did some cosmetic things that gave the adventure more personality.

I reasoned that the corrupting influence of evil and alien powers could certainly transform the faithful into sentient undead, so I used ghouls as the local cult leaders. I thought about beefing the head honcho up as a cleric, but I settled on letting him be a ghast (a ghoul with the advanced template in the Pathfinder RPG) and substituted a cleric's channel energy power for the normal stench ability. Instead of using two claw attacks for these monsters, I had them used curvy, sacrificial swords (short swords) instead - the damage was the same, but the image made for a better fit. Once these creeps put on silver fish-faced masks and some robes, they weren't just any old ghouls - they were devotees of the Old Ones.

Their minions were simple skeletons as far as game mechanics go. However, I determined that the skeletons were sentient - not because they needed to do anything complicated, but because the players needed to get an understanding of the madness and hate that drove them. Furthermore, the skeletons were the remnants of skum (an aberrant race of fishlike humanoids created by eldritch horrors long ago). These guys were dancing around a large black marble altar when the adventurers arrived. Yeah - I did fudge here - I really didn't want to beef up the skeletons to match Skum stats, but they were no less a challenge for all that. Like the ghouls, they gave the encounter the feel and power level it needed - both were memorable to the players.

Lastly, the ghouls were served by zombie slaves - human and dwarven victims of the cult. They were definitely playing the animated servant role as defined by the game, but I did have them provide a disturbing chorus as part of a summoning ritual the party intruded upon.

In the next post, I'll talk a little bit more about the elemental elements of the game.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Against the Hill Giants

G1 - Back Cover
Today I will follow on my last post on the classic AD&D module, G1 - Steading of the Hill Giant Chief.

First, lets take a look at these giants as they appear on the cover of G1 (similar illustrations appear within the module; see cover in last post). Also note the giant log hall/settlement of the back cover. These 1978 images don't quite jive with the near-caveman appearance and description of hill giants found in the 1st edition Monster Manual and later editions of the game.

I think I have found it more appealing to play hill giants like they appear in G1 - ie. more like shabby barbarians than neanderthals. This is a rather cosmetic thing, but I think ogres already do a good job of filling this niche, and with the just right amount of fantasy wonder. Why do it over again with any of the core races of giants? As mentioned before, this is a matter of taste and I suppose there's no reason we can't have caveman giants and giants that are more akin to barbarians of the Iron Age or Classical Antiquity.

As for the power levels, I realize the hill giant adventure was meant for 9th level characters and higher - and this was back in the day when the adventuring parties had seven or more characters. Mike Mearls reported on a lunchtime game on his take on G1 back in 2007 - check it out in the Wizards Archives here. Mearls goes for old school intent: eight 11th level characters. I think it would be worth trying out his recommendations, even with the Pathfinder power shift in characters and monsters.

However, I'm wondering if the module could be tweaked for the higher end of mid-level play, something like 7th or 8th character levels, with groups of six to eight players?

What brings me to this thought is the old school hit points of the hill giants in the module: most of them had like 38 or so hit points. You can get those kind of hit points by applying the advanced monster template to Pathfinder ogres. Not only would you get a tougher ogre, but a smarter one. At Challenge Rating 4 (one advanced ogre should be an average challenge for a party of four 4th level characters), this could be the ticket. If I recall the challenge rating math correctly, then about six advanced ogres would make a CR 10 encounter. That makes for challenging encounters for 7th level characters. Considering that a hill giant is supposed to be an average challenge for four characters of 7th level, the power downgrade seems about right. Six hill giants should make a CR 13 encounter - a similar difficulty level for 11th level characters.

Except for the chieftain's dining hall, the characters probably won't encounter that many giants (or advanced ogres as may be the case). This will probably require some tweaking, considering the hall had - I think - over 20 giants plus some ogres in it. Of course, I'm thinking the point of the adventure was to break up the dinner party and draw the giants into ambushes and tight spots whenever possible. Once you throw in places to hide and add windows (which seem oddly absent from the steading map, but not on the back cover illustration), then I think a good-sized party of 7th or 8th level characters has a chance.

One last thought, touching upon the map - it now seems to me that the steading was still a dungeon crawl despite its hill fort setting. I would even be tempted to redo the steading as a number of separate lodges instead of one big building with attached tower and auxiliary storage. Of course, there's also the basement, which hides the chieftain's treasure vault, a lost Cthulhu-type temple, and caverns full of rebellious orcs. Almost seems like an adventure in itself.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Against the Giants

I would like to revisit some classic Advanced Dungeons & Dragons modules for my Pathfinder RPG games. I am in the process of doing that kind of thing already with some of the Slavers series (the A series modules), but this definitely will take some more imagination on my part. The Slaver modules were mid-level adventures and don't require too much tweaking, except maybe in numbers of foes in a given encounter. The Giants series (G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, G2 Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl, and G3 Hall of of the Fire Giant King) not only have large foe numbers to deal with, but the giants have grown tougher since the first edition of the game.

I don't think anyone could run the Giants modules "as is" by simply substituting the current versions of hill giants and the like into the adventures. What might have worked as a challenging adventure for high level characters (say, 9th to 12th level) just won't work out right these days, at least in regards to enclaves of giants.

I'll post some ideas on how I might deal with G1 - Steading of the Hill Giants in my next post.

In the meantime, you can check out some of my thoughts on the old AD&D Slavers series here and here.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

A month out...really?

My apologies for the readers who regularly make a trip to the blog to see what new topic I've decided to ramble on about recently. Next week I will post a few things - touching upon a number of topics.

And yeah - still wrestling with the Dark Age Warriors (ca 6th Century) in wargaming mentioned in the last blog post. Offhand, I'd have to say Armati has given me some inspiration, but no definite answers.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Check It Out: Halsall's Battle in the Early Medieval West

I haven't made much time for the blog in recent weeks, but I thought I would share something with you that I recently read on Guy Halsall's blog, Historian on the Edge.

I took my time and enjoyed reading Guy's post of Battle in the Early Medieval West. He describes the piece as an unpublished entry submitted for an "Encyclopaedia of Classical Battle or some such." If you have not read Halsall's Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West c.450-900, then this is a great place to start. This piece really re-energized my love for the period after spending quite a bit of time researching, playing, and writing about other military subjects.

I think I am just starting to grasp how differently this period was from Roman Imperial Europe and the Late Medieval West. I mean, I thought that Dark Age warfare was different, but only in a rather superficial way for the most part - ie. not like Late Medieval warfare. As one might expect from Halsall, he challenges the idea that the military trip(s) from Point A (Late Antiquity) to Point B (Late Medieval) are smooth or that they can be interpolated simply by looking at data from better recorded periods.

How does this apply to wargaming? Well, right now I think I'm going to let that swim about in the back of my mind for a bit. I can kind of see pieces of how one could adapt rules to capture at least some aspects of Dark Age warfare, at least in regards to army list stats/abilities of certain types of armies. Try this - take a good look at how Halsall describes 6th Century weaponry and combat, and see if you can build a tabletop unit that moves and fights in the way described. Of course, this is just part of Dark Age warfare - there's also the matter of command and control and tactics. I'm looking forward to revisiting this subject later.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Black Powder and Feudal Japan

The game pieces from Shogun/Samurai Swords may come in handy with experimenting with Japan's late feudal period using Warlord Games' Black Powder rules and any suitable Richard Borg hex game board and terrain (ie. Battle Cry, Memoir 44, Battle Lore). As I mentioned in a previous blog or two, Borg's boards are a great way to play the Black Powder rules if you don't have the time/inclination/funds for collecting large painted armies of lead or plastic. I have already tried this with the American Civil War and been quite satisfied with gameplay. This is also a quick way to get some experience with Black Powder with a quick set up and clean up time.

The shogun army pieces should give you enough figures for a good game (assuming about 4 figures per unit and hex); if you combine a couple of army colors then you ought to be able to something really large.

As for the rules, I know they don't really apply to the period, but I think they ought to work well enough. If post-Mughal Indian armies can get a fair translation with the rules (check out their entries in The Last Argument of Kings supplement for examples), then I think 16th/17th Century Japanese armies are worth scratch-building using the game's easily-tweaked unit templates. While I don't think the period was dominated in numbers by matchlock-armed peasants, I think the armies that relied on unarmored peasant levies make a good fit here.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011


I recently got a chance to play Milton Bradley's Shogun (aka Samurai Swords), after a wait of probably 24 years (and even then I probably played it no more than twice). I love the game - not only for it's design - but also for how some its rules could be applied to a campaign game of tabletop miniatures set in feudal Japan.

A core concept of the game is the division of armies into either field armies (each player begins with three) or provincial armies. Field armies can hold up to about 20 units, with limitations placed on the number of noble warriors and peasant spearman and matchlock gunners they may contain. Provincial garrisons may only have a handful of troops. Player choices are further limited - and made more important - by the limited number of matchlock gunners and samurai bowmen he can distribute to his forces, period. I like that. Field armies can pick up or drop off units in provinces they occupy or move through.

Most of the action takes place with the maneuver of the field armies; losing field armies certainly reduces one's offensive capability and doesn't do much for defense either (ie. fewer fire brigades). Ultimately, the game is won by the player who can take over half the island's provinces.

The importance of the field armies is heightened by gaining experience with their leaders, the daimyos. Beating an enemy army - even small provincial garrison - earns the commander experience point. With enough experience, the daimyo can make extra moves and attacks on the player's turn. That could be big - although I think I have been knocked out every game well before anyone developed that kind of expertise.

One thing I would recommend as a home rule would be offer more points to a daimyo that defeats a field army. There's gotta be a difference between besting another army of potentially equal size than it is to roll over a couple spearmen in a backwater province. This would also be a quantifiable reward for players who get the action in quick against other players instead of wheedling them out of pieces of easily obtained territory. There's got to be more honor for one daimyo to beat another daimyo.

For tabletop campaign play, I'd recommend the above to any that use some sort of territorial conquest. You would likely need to reduce the field armies to one per player and probably limited the geographic extent of the map. While army lists probably would address composition limitations and decisions, it might be kind of cool to have a bonus "Dogs of War" unit or two that one could add if a battle took place in a particular region. Battlefront's Firestorm campaign did something like this for adding special units to certain fights and this method would work well here as well.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot to add that the game has been re-released under the name Ikusa by Wizards of the Coast.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Monte Cassino: Wargaming Ideas from Castle Hill

Matthew Parker's Monte Cassino
There was plenty of brutal fighting to go around during the Allied offensive for Cassino and the Gustav Line in the first half of 1944. I'm specifically referring to assaults and counterattacks for specific strategic points, not the horrific drawn-out attrition that consumed much of the campaign. One battle sticks out in my mind more than others - the struggle for Castle Hill. The German paratrooper counterattacks against British-held Castle Hill (another key point near the Cassino monastery and town) were harrowing affairs that were compared to a medieval siege that used machine guns and hand grenades.

From a gaming perspective, I think this would translate well into a good squad/section or platoon-sized game. Why? Well, for one thing, the rules really need to highlight on the bomb-throwing aspect - and that's something tends to be handled a bit abstractly the further up the org-level of the game (ie. maybe as a combat factor or stat). I think the amount and nature of the castle and ruins might have made linear rifle fire a bit limiting compared to lobbing a grenade over covering obstacles.

While I don't know if there was an unusual number of MG42 and Bren crews positioned for the fights, I could certainly believe the local battalion commanders put as many of them into the hot spots as possible, leaving some sections in reserve without their squad MGs. The idea lends itself to an interesting possibility of scenario-specific orders of battle that allow one to attach a few extra MG crews to the combat squads.

Then there's the terrain. Even if one did not attempt recreate any of the assaults at Castle Hill, the use of medieval walls and gates combined with later period buildings would make for a cool tabletop if handled right. In my mind I'm thinking that some of those plastic Warhammer 40k buildings could pass for Gothic/pseudo-Gothic architecture used in churches and other civic buildings.

This has really got me to thinking thinking about Warlord Games' plastic Commonwealth infantry and their extra weapon sprues. That would be a fairly quick way to get as many bomb throwers and Bren gunners on the table as any, considering the build options available. While they don't offer the German paras in plastic yet, their plastic German infantry (and extra weapon sprues)  would also be a good way to build this mix of troops. Of course, any rifleman can be a grenadier, but I think the visual appeal of having more than a couple of bomb-throwers on the table is a plus.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Coming Up: A few more words on Monte Cassino, plus board games

While I haven't had much time for posting in the last couple of weeks due to a number of unexpected work and home improvement projects, I have been thinking about them at least.

I have a few more game-related things to say about Monte Cassino. After that, I'm ready to talk about some inspiration from Richard Borg's Battle Lore and the Milton Bradley classic, Shogun (aka Samurai Swords).

Monday, August 8, 2011

Cassino: Wargaming Ideas

I have been reading Matthew Parker's book on the campaign for Monte Cassino and thought I would share some thoughts I had on rubble in wargaming.

The bombing of Cassino -  which was even more brutal than the bombing of the monastery - and its subsequent assault by Commonwealth troops gave me a lot of ideas for wargaming certain aspects of the terrain conditions. Rubble piles - some measuring 20 feet high - and craters blocked the progress of infantry and armor alike. Like quite a bit of the natural terrain of the campaign area, this forced the Allies to channel troops under fire and countered advantages in numbers and mechanization. Storming a building or strong point might happen, but the town would not be simply and quickly overwhelmed.

I think huge piles of rubble need to make more of an appearance in street fighting scenarios, at least in heavily decimated and contested areas. Offhand, I think of the Ruhr Pocket, Stalingrad (and probably most Eastern Front city battles), and of course, Cassino. I see a lot of ruins and rubble on tabletops, but not often like the way they described in personal accounts. They should be more than table dressing and maybe something more/other than difficult/very difficult terrain.

In games like Flames of War, where the infantry have a steady movement rate regardless of terrain (if I recall correctly), I think some of these debris areas should require a successful skill check to ascend or move across. I would probably consider them impassable to vehicles. Really, I think that might be ideal for most skirmish games in regards to the infantry; heavy movement penalties for entering rough terrain has its place, but I think that requiring a plodding one-quarter move up a debris hill the size of a building as taking away from the fast-paced action one associates with a firefight. I think pass or fail on a climb check seems more like it.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Matthew Parker's Monte Cassino

This is one battle that has intrigued me since I was a kid and saw some photos of German paratroopers in the rubble of the campaign area. I bought Matthew Parker's book on the subject for my dad a few years back and decided it was high time I read it myself.

Two things I'll say for the book before giving a fuller review on down the line - it is great for providing something more than just a summary of the campaign leading up to Cassino and the Gustav Line. I've found it quite illuminating - about a quarter of the book is spent on this. The second thing is that I realize the Italian campaign for Rome has a lot of thematic similarities to Gallipoli - an even some of the same players (Churchill).

There's a lot here to inspire wargaming scenarios, and I'll probably address some thoughts on that as well some time in the future.

The book is worth the read. I surely haven't read enough on the subject to tell you how it stacks up against any definitive accounts of campaign for Rome, but it is packed with a lot of information and insights drawn from unit histories and numerous personal anecdotes - British, American, German, French, and Italian (esp. civilian). I think if you like books like Stephen Ambrose's Citizen Soldiers, you will like the style of Parker's work. It is very engaging.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Scary Monsters & Super Creeps: The Faceless One

Dungeon #125
I utilized several low- to mid-level adventures from Paizo's Shackled City and Age of Worm adventure path (AP) campaigns that ran in Dungeon magazine back in the old print days (somewhere between 2002 and 2005). I mixed those conspiracy-riddled episodes with other like-minded adventures from the magazine, taking bits and pieces here and there (sometimes a locale, encounter, or monster/villain) if not entire modules.

The Faceless One from Mike Mearls' "The Three Faces of Evil" was a heavy duty player from almost the beginning. He appears as an important cult leader in the adventure as written - definitely a major player, at least on the local scene; he would prove to be relatively small in the ultimate scheme of things for Age of Worms AP, but he made the perfect kind of second rank commander for my campaign. While a small cabal of fiendish and fiend-blooded foes topped the conspiracy for my campaign, this guy made himself felt in a much more material way. 

As envisioned by Mearls, he was a bizarre and ruthless villain. I imagine his appearance was warped through the vile beings he consorted with or maybe he was some kind of alien. Between his appearance, lair (a magicked maze), and his kenku (murderous crow men) cultist followers, I knew he would be memorable even in the context of the one adventure. However, I knew The Faceless One could be so much more.

There was no shortage of skullduggery in this campaign - clashes with bloodthirsty cultists, kidnappings, etc. Whenever the players gathered information during their investigations, The Faceless One became a recurring name. While they never got to meet him face to face (sorry, I couldn't help myself) until they penetrated his secret lair, they felt a dreaded familiarity with him - physically and psychologically.

His kenku killers provided a great connection, serving as a corporate recurring villain in many ways. They seemed to show up as tangent adversaries (or simply observers) in encounters with other groups of villains. It got to be that their appearance indicated deeper secrets to the obvious drivers of the games (ie. "stop the bandits, stop the orcish warbands, etc.). What's more, they kenku also disposed of weak-linked allies. By the time the player characters met The Faceless One, they knew what kind of villain he was. The formula was simple - take every other adventure and just add kenku. OK, I kind of kid you a bit there - the decisions to insert kenku felt very organic; they showed up whenever The Faceless One needed something done in secret.

He was a tough encounter. He destroyed a brave/foolhardy dwarven warrior with a point-blank lightning bolt in a final showdown that also saw the end of another brave hero - and his lair was nothing short of a nightmare of ambushes and mad spirits. However, I think the sessions leading up to his demise did as much to build up this foe in the gamers' minds as the bloodbath they witnessed that evening.

The end of The Faceless One wasn't the end of the campaign, but he was a great milestone. In fact, he would have proved more than adequate for a complete story arc if I had decided to move onto other adventure objectives and foes altogether.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Seedy Villains...delayed

Dungeon 125 by Paizo Publishing
My expose on revamping/re-purposing fantasy RPG villains to make them more memorable has taken back seat to a number of expected and unexpected projects. In the meantime, check out the cover to Dungeon #125, which had Mike Mearls' "Three Faces of Evil" in it. Here's a spoiler for the next villains installment - this adventure had the creepiest villain I've ever had the pleasure to have in a campaign: The Faceless One.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Seeding (Recurring?) Villains

After my teaser post on the subject of making easier work of bringing recurring villains to your favorite fantasy game, I reconsidered my choice of making an example of the stable of villainous leaders to be found in the pages of TSR D&D module A2: Secret of the Slavers Stockade. In fact, why don't I just share some things I actually pulled off a few years ago?

I think it all goes back to the concept of re-purposing published adventures and working in your own material - plots, characters, whatever. I have run campaigns in which I created quite a bit of material from scratch, but more often I have connected published material into a series of adventures to form campaigns. My guess is that is how many game masters do things.

A few years ago I used the Shackled City and Age of Worms adventure paths from Dungeon Magazine (these were 12-issue series published between 2003 and 2006), intermixing the low- to mid-level adventures with others that suited my taste. Both revolved around conspiracies and worked out well with the kind of campaign I decided to run. I just tweaked them as needed. More importantly - and making my point, I hope - is that some of the really great adventures had some excellent one-shot villains that weren't really expected to last beyond a memorable showdown or they were sideshow baddies who had no specific plans beyond the current adventure. I wanted to make some of these guys really memorable, because I thought their strength of despicable character would resonate well with the campaign. In short, with some tweaking, I could re-purpose some of the villains and give them a prelude to their glorious stage exits when the players finally met them in battle.

Next time, I'll give some examples of how I reworked some villains and how they made a bigger impact on our games.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Coming Up: Creating Recurring Villains in Fantasy Gaming

A2: Secret of the Slavers Stockade
Recurring villains can make a good campaign even better. Players like to fight the big, bad boss monster that will show up at the end of the campaign, whether or not they know who it is early on. Well, a few bad lieutenants can really help maintain and build the group's desire to defeat their ultimate foe. I finally figured out to put recurring villainous leaders and champions in a campaign without requiring a huge amount of story arc development and all that. I think that kind of thing is awful hard to figure out before the dice have rolled in the first of many adventures that make up a campaign. Even if you have it all planned out or use a published series of connected adventures (such as Paizo's Adventure Paths), I think some of the tips may come in handy for an organic feel to recurring villains you may not have even considered at the start of your campaign.

I'll offer a teaser with the cover of the second module of the classic Slave Lords series - A2: Secret of the Slavers Stockade. It has a wealth of villains worthy of seeding into any fantasy game campaign.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Re-Thinking the Slave Pits of the Undercity

Module A1: Slave Pits of the Undercity
I now turn to my favorite TSR Advanced Dungeons & Dragons module - Slave Pits of the Undercity. I have talked about it at length in a previous post, but today I'm going to delve deeper into some elements I would use to change the adventure to suit my tastes now; some of which are driven by certain aesthetics and game-play experiences.

I have brought the module out for play for a number of players for the first and second editions of the D&D game, but not the third (or its spiritual successor, the Pathfinder RPG). I thought about leaving the module 'as is', but the more I think about it I want to change the physical aspects of the location for clarity. I'm not so much worried about the cast of monsters.

The adventure takes place in temple ruins and a underground level, which includes part of old sewer system as well as some new construction (such as the iron-barred cages of the slave pits). In my mind, the upper level of the temple and ancillary buildings were made for the dungeon-minded. It seems like spaces between buildings/gardens/etc. are more corridor-like than open to the sky. The buildings seem to lack any windows. Also, I'm not quite sure what parts of the compound were actually under the same roof - they certainly made for some odd-shaped buildings if they did. Were the characters in passageways or paths between very close structures? What if I just re-imagined the the place on a historical model?

So, I think I've decided to incorporate the core features and encounters of the module into a redesigned space/series of spaces. As the module's artwork strongly suggests a sense of Greco-Roman Antiquity, I thought I would work in elements of actual classical temples and early medieval monasteries (esp. Eastern European and Coptic designs). Google, of course, is a great help here. I have to say I think I hit the goldmine with some floorplans under the Abbey listing in Wikipedia. I've seen them round and about over the years.

One thing I noticed in favor of the windowless concept of the original upper level of the temple buildings is that it is not totally out of line in comparison to the floor plans and 3D renderings I found in my research. However, I think we are probably talking more about pagan temples (ie. think the rectangular, column-girded sites, with the Parthenon serving as a great example) and the outside walls of the self-sufficient monasteries/abbeys. I'd have to say the module's temple grounds remind more of a medieval abbey compound with classical elements. Finally, after taking a look at the St. Gall monastery plans, there seems to be a number of odd-shaped buildings there as well.

Ultimately, I think what I want to do here is create a gaming area where the adventurers can think well beyond tunnel crawling, get out in the open (probably to their chagrin), and maybe scale a wall or two for sneaky entrances or escapes. Also, the slavers will likely need some adjustments to how they guard avenues of approach to the site's entrances.

To that end, that leaves me with redesigning the maps or using other sources. I've thought about bringing in some of Paizo's flip-mats for the occasion. I think a good medieval village inn or monastery with a courtyard might really work here. More later when I make up my mind...

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Review: GameMastery Guide (Pathfinder RPG)

GameMastery Guide
I hesitated to purchase Paizo's GameMastery Guide when it came out last year. I thumbed through the pages and nothing immediately leaped out at me. It has a lot of good info for novice game masters and all sorts of tables and info, but nothing that seemed like I really needed. The book's authors/designers had consciously tried to make an effort for their work to offer the kind of catch-all material found in Gary Gygax's Dungeon Masters Guide for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, published over 30 years ago. I'll say this - they did a great job of marrying that concept to the conciseness of the D&D 3.X core rulebooks. However, I felt there was nothing new under the sun for me there.

Well, I was wrong.

I finally got a copy of the book once I realized it had a full-blown NPCs gallery - over 50 pages of them. Each page has a NPC archetype - warrior, knight, bandit, slaver, assassin, thug, cultist, guild master, pick pocket, etc - with full stats and plenty of suggestions for tweaking combat abilities and the like. They run the gamut of challenge, from low to high level, with about three NPCs of various power levels fitting in with a general theme, such as criminals, aristocrats, city watch, and crusaders.

I realized this would be a great tool for a lot of situations, but I like it most because it would save me time on putting together my villainous humanoid leaders and followers - ie. orcs, goblins, etc. These guys, of course, have core stats in the Bestiary, typically as Warriors (NPC fighting class that is substandard to the more practiced Fighter). Now with just a few tweaks I can turn those human nefarious types into monster commanders and champions.

It's already proven some value in getting me a low-level cleric into our group of heroes, and on very short timetable. I made a tweak here or there, but it took me nothing like the time it would to start from scratch.

Then of course, there's the treasure tables. This is another time saving set of tools that has always been a part of the game. You don't really need the tables to sort out a good treasure mix for your players, but they make things so easy.

And for advice - well, I haven't read the entire book yet - but I have already found one gem that suggests really giving a memorable scene to one particular treasure - either its appearance and/or the circumstances of its discovery. Description and atmosphere are good for bringing an imaginary place to life for each player, but too many special events and they lose their uniqueness. I have to agree, and I used it to good advantage in the start up of a new campaign. One player discovered a small bag of garnets inserted into the crack of a cavern wall. That little treasure comprised about 5% of the total value of the adventure's haul, but they remember it as much as a truly special (and creepy) medallion found in the same adventure.

 I highly recommend the book if you are playing Pathfinder or D&D 3.5 (Pathfinder is backwards compatible).
DM's Guide - TSR, 1979

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Coming Up: Recent Epiphanies in Fantasy RPG Gaming

I'm working on some posts regarding Paizo's Gamemastery Guide (part of their Pathfinder RPG line, but quite compatible with D&D 3.5) and rethinking some ideas on the classic D&D module, The Slave Pits of the Undercity. More later.

Paizo's Gamemastery Guide

Saturday, July 9, 2011

WW II Gaming: Luftwaffe Air-to-Ground Tactics

Rise of the Luftwaffe
I stumbled across a blog post that had some US Army data gathered on late war German air tactics v. ground targets at Lone Sentry. Don't know much about the site, but I did find a number of interesting topics and pictures while browsing around.

I think late war scenario design could benefit from this kind of study. While I thought about how it might be put in the context of a skirmish game, it certainly has a much broader application.

First - and I'm making the assumption that you have read the report by now - is that I was amazed at how much the German Air Force still played a combat role against Allied ground troops at that point of the war, especially considering Allied air superiority.

The assertion that German air attacks concentrated on armored spearheads (target type), followed by attacks on crowded bridges/river crossings (target area) was illuminating. Rear areas do not appear to have been priority. This certainly opens the possibility of bringing in a Luftwaffe attack in a hot ground engagement between Allied armor and German troops in breakthrough/last ditch scenarios.

I was also interested in the tricks the Luftwaffe would pull on the ground units, such as purposefully drawing AA fire so as to spot them for waiting bombers and staging fake dogfights to dupe foes on the ground into thinking Allied aircraft was in the mix. Offhand, I'm not sure how to bring that to most ground based games, but it leads to certain possibilities with campaign missions for aircraft card games like Down in Flames (Rise of the Luftwaffe, etc.). However, this would be a great reason to paint up the US M16 AA halftrack model with the quad .50 cal mount.

Finally, I'm going to make a big assumption here: probably most ground attack missions did not occur in during a ground battle already in progress. I thought the idea was to hit the enemy while he was vulnerable (ie. in column on a road) and before he could bring his forces to a ground fight. That said, timing, opportunity, and other priorities could certainly bring aircraft into play in the heat of a ongoing battle. I suppose at some point I should try to find some data that challenges/supports my thoughts here.

Friday, July 8, 2011

FOW Project: Wooden Guns on M10s

 Sometimes I really don't like the soft lead guns on 15mm AFVs. Battlefront's M10s gave me an option to keep from bending or breaking the barrels.

If you look closely at the pictures, you will see that a clipped toothpick is mounted on the vehicle. It fit snugly in the gun mount and doesn't look that much wider than either of the guns provided for the model. I'm pretty sure that when the model is painted, no one will really notice what I've done here when it's on the table.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

FOW Project: M7 Priests and M10s

I'm bringing in a number of AFV support for my US infantry and armor. Ultimately, I am trying to build an armored company and an assault infantry company (taken from 3rd Division lists from Battlefront's Dogs & Devils).

Of course, I am continuing the tradition of posting pictures of the "Drying of the Washed Resin/Plastic Models". I gave the vehicles a good soapy scrubbing - and still amazed at the bluish gray water left behind in the soaking cup.

This time around the vehicles are new enough that they have the new hard plastic tracks and accessories. OK - new to me; I think Battlefront began the switchover to hard plastic a few years back. I was very impressed with the quality of the pieces - even the the .50 cal machine guns. Also, the new track-mounting method leaves 3 slots on one side of the hull and 2 on the other, with corresponding tabs on the tracks. This keeps guys like me from putting the tracks on backwards - and I have done it, believe me.

Also, I think Battlefront did a good job with the crews. Most of the time I do not like most of the crew figures. Many of them look poorly sculpted or molded compared to the decent to excellent figures you get with an infantry platoon.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

FOW Project: Flakpanzers

I finally finished up the flakpanzers - part of the summer project for last year!

I can't recall if I mentioned it before, but I tried out the Late War German Armour spray from Battlefront (I believe Army Painter makes it) on one of the flakpanzers. It makes for a great shade of dunkengelb. While I'm not crazy about the price of $15 US retail, it might be worth it in time saved and great color (it serves as primer too). Since I picked up a can in the discount bin real cheap, I can't complain at all.

Instead of using a mix of black and brown inks, this time I just went with watered-down black acrylic paint. It left a lot of smudges and I like the effect.

The last thing to do for last year's summer project is to put in crews for the 251/9s. I've already started the next summer project - more on that later.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Things That Go Bang! by Neil Smith

It seems only appropriate on July 4 to write about things that go bang, and Paul’s musings on artillery and aircraft have me pondering all things explosive. Paul has brought forward some very interesting ideas on what might be labeled “off-table interference”, so I hope my thoughts can add to his.

My first point is that if we’re skirmish wargaming we don’t really need artillery and air-attacks to enhance the game, and historically I cannot thing of many examples where a commander in a skirmish action has called in fire or air support. More often it is likely to be a stray shell or opportunistic air attack that comes into play – although to my utter discredit, my best “example” that comes readily to mind is the German plane attack in Kelly’s Heroes! Nevertheless, my point is that this event is in the lap of the gods, and we know they roll a d6 before every turn, don’t we?

Supposing we do have a stray shell come flying across our table, how can we work that into the game in a fair and hopefully realistic way? If there is no fighting at the time, then the soldiers would hear the sound of the in-coming shell and should be given time to take cover. Grant every soldier a 50mm move to cover or to hit the deck before the shell lands, so that after the event takes place that is their new starting position for the impending turn. If combat is underway, then no action is taken because no-one hears the shell.

Working out where the random shell lands has always been a problem of mine, but having the non-receiving player lobbing a grain of rice works as well as anything – it is hard to aim and has an unpredictable bounce. Whatever the means of delivery, the shell lands and has an impact radius of perhaps 120mm. The receiving player then rolls for damage on everything within that radius, with perhaps a radius of 25mm completely obliterated and replaced by a model shell-hole, or black cut-out circle if you haven’t mastered making shell-holes out of round beer-mats and modeling clay.

Aircraft are different because their intervention is targeted. In this case I advocate a roll of a d6 on a 360 degree circle – 60 degrees per spot running clockwise. I love Paul’s idea of a silhouette being place on the incoming line of the aircraft, though a model works too if you’ve made any Airfix investments lately. Now flip a coin to decide whose side the plane is on, unless you agree beforehand who has air supremacy. Whoever gets the attack may now decide on a strafe or bombing mission – i.e. the player is now the pilot – and he can attack anything on a straight line from the entrance point to the exit point on the opposite side.  But again, if no combat is taking place, the defender can make the impulse move to cover.

A bombing run should be one targeted bomb with a simple d6 to decide on hitting the target. The radius would probably be the same as for an artillery round, and it makes life easier. My strafing runs are 300mm long and 25mm wide for two guns at 75mm apart – as stunning coincidence has it, that is the exact measurement of the plastic ruler I bought out of the Dollar Store for the purpose! The intended target is located 150mm along the strafing line, it doesn’t matter which side, and damage is rolled for everything else that falls under the strafing ‘template’. While, yes, you could throw in friendly fire, the plane being shot down etc, why complicate a simple random event?

My final thought on things that go bang is on on-table direct fire artillery. I don’t want to overload my table with artillery, but I painted that 88 and I want it to do something useful!  And if you were a commander on the ground and had access to an artillery piece, you would want it firing. To slow down rate of fire, I advocate that your artillery piece is either firing, or loading, or traversing if it is capable, and even then the dreaded “1” should result in a misfire that takes another turn to clear.

When firing an artillery piece at the ranges you are working with on a skirmish table, deciding on if it hits the target seems superfluous. Although, you could roll a d6 to assess the height in cm at which the shell hits. Otherwise a simple straight line between barrel and target works easily enough. However, you must include a dead ground distance in front of the barrel where in heavier pieces the barrel cannot be depressed enough.

Having said all of the above, it seems that artillery has the propensity to decide a skirmish game – which makes me think of the super-weapons in GW games that made me wonder why anybody played the game with anything else. But, if you’ve set up your game with bucket-loads of terrain then the effects of artillery are much reduced: artillery then might deviate your game trajectory but wont kill the game, at least I hope not. If it does, adjust your random event tables accordingly!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Artillery Support in WW II Skirmishing

WI 259
This is my last post in a series of combined arms in World War II skirmish gaming, taking inspiration from Neil Smith's "Skirmish Envelope" from Wargames Illustrated 259. However, I do like skirmish gaming, and I expect I will return the subject sooner than later. 

I think a number of basic ideas used in local mortar support can be applied to artillery support - check out those posts here, here, and here - things like automatic knockdowns/pinned results, chances for suppression and kills, and the effects of heavy cover in some cases. I think fire support from battalion and divisional headquarters should be potentially devastating - and not always welcome.

I think heavy indirect fire could be handled in a manner similar to Flames of War - simply determine a center point for the barrage and measure out a large circle, square, or rectangle on the tabletop and assume multiple rounds pound the area liberally; I think 2' square feet would do nicely.  I think any infantry would be automatically pinned with chances to suppress or kill - ie. maybe roll a d10, with results of 4-8 resulting in suppression and 9-10 in heavy wounds/killed. A building might provide some protection, changing the odds of suppression to 7-9 and kills on a 10. In woods, it might be similar, although I recall that timed fuses were sometimes used to cause blasts in the treetops to make things much worse on the ground.

If by some chance either of the platoons on the ground have a chance to call in fire, it will probably be worth having chances of delays, even if requested for a specific turn in the future. I'd say if a defender has the option, it's a good idea to go ahead and identify a limited number of landmarks on which the barrage will center. Offhand, I'd say that planned defensive fire would have less chance of scattering, or at least not scattering as far as artillery that has not had a chance to make some preparatory test rounds.

If the big pattern blast does not appeal to you, then it might be worth trying a series of smaller templates (say, 12" in diameter) and giving them a chance to deviate or pre-assign a pattern - ie. "the first salvo is aimed a landmark A, and the next will occur due North, 12" away.

Of course, the random event table comes in handy here. It may be that neither side has a chance of calling in the heavy guns, but knows there may be a chance it will fall on their behalf. It may be that it does not matter which sides is firing the big guns - the referee or scenario designer can simply pre-plot fire based on certain landmarks and roll randomly which one receives fire when it happens. I'm sure battalion commanders have ordered or requested fire for their men without consulting them. In a lot of ways, I think this may be the best approach to using battalion and divisional artillery support - the players have no real control over it and at best they are only aware it could happen.