Saturday, February 27, 2010

Barbarians, Bandits, and Ballyhoo (Part Three)

This is the last blog in the series dedicated to Dragon #63 (July 1982), the magazine that served as the single most influential piece of reading for my neophyte understanding of what a role-playing game could be, right after the 1st Edition Dungeon Master's Guide.

The Humanoids
This article offered an in-depth review of the societies, cultures, and gods of the kobolds, goblins, hobgoblins, and gnolls. The Monster Manual obviously gave us a decent overview, but this piece really went the distance. Again I found material that helped us to differentiate between these nasty foes with something more their physical appearance and typical panoplies. I'm quite certain the monsters' evil deities found their way into Unearthed Arcana and 2nd Edition's Monstrous Mythology handbook. Nomog-Geaya (the patron hobgoblin deity of war) is still my favorite mythical figure from the D&D game.

Plan Before You Play
Ed Greenwood wrote this one, and he even mentions his homebrew setting Forgotten Realms within its pages. Who knew that before the decade ended we would see its release as a long-lived popular commercial franchise? That aside, this article really helped me to put some thought into the loosely-defined world where our campaigns unfolded. In those days, I didn't go much beyond the range of a few kingdoms and regions - which was all right - we didn't have globe-trotting journeys usually - but it was nice to have something more than just completely generic medieval towns separated by generic dangerous wilderness. Greenwood's nuts-and-bolts approach was perfect.

For the Sake of Change
The magazine also had an article based on coinage, citing historical examples and encouraging game masters to try out something more exciting than the old copper and gold pieces. They should have regional origins, names, and values. 

Chagmat and Devas
Dragon #63 also included the adventure 'Chagmat', which kind of confused me with the spiderfolk's weird gem-operated chambers but was fun to play nonetheless. I think the cavern encounters on Little Boy Mountain were as fun as the actual chagmat lair. I still laugh about the ogre named Muddah Rateater. I also liked the dangerous chasm where the PCs and the hobgoblin sentries could knock each over the edge of the bridge (there was a great illustration of a hobgoblin getting shoved over with a spear thrust).

Finally, we get the first sight of the devas, angelic (sort of) creatures who served the good deities of the game's pantheon. I believe they made it into the Monster Manual II hardback a few years later. In some ways, they seem more frightening than the D&D fiends. 

That's all for the D&D epiphanies for this week. I'll do another series later on.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Barbarians, Bandits, and Ballyhoo (Part Two)

As I mentioned in the last post, Dragon #63 proved to be quite an epiphany for me. I'll get right to the articles that made this issue such a great treasure in my early gaming days. 

The Big, Bad Barbarian
This is where Gygax introduced the barbarian class. A version of it appeared later in the Unearthed Arcana D&D source book a few years later (1986?). What I thought was so cool about the article - besides the class itself - was that Gygax devoted a lot of text to help the reader make sense of the assorted abilities the character could have. He put the abilities in context of real world barbaric/heroic societies and their equivalent in his World of Greyhawk setting. 

Bandits and Bandit Kingdoms
Dragon #63 introduced the bandit NPC (non-player character) class, sort of a mix between ranger and thief. I used this one a few times. Ultimately, it seemed kind of underpowered but it still seemed pretty cool. 

The issue also spent a few pages detailing the World of Greyhawk's Bandit Kingdoms, complete with brief leader and army stats. Of course, I can't recall most of the kingdom names, but I think Rookroost was one of them. This brings me to another tangent point about the interesting place names from the World of Greyhawk: I never played the setting, but the names of the regions, countries, and cities were so interesting, I had to bring them into my game. Those evocative names brought some kind of gravity to the vaguely-formed world in which we played. 

In the next blog, I'll review some bits about monster societies and world-building. 

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Barbarians, Bandits, and Ballyhoo (Part One)

Dragon #63 (July 1982) made a huge impression on the way I viewed Dungeons & Dragons as a game master (or Dungeon Master in the old tongue). It changed - rather, created - a worldview perspective from top to bottom for all those myriad adventures. This issue brought the concepts of monster societies and world-building to the game in a ways I'd never fully explored before. It offered me big ideas and tools for making them felt in an intimate way on the ground level of our games.

The rule books (especially the awesome 1st edition Dungeon Master's Guide) and TSR's adventure modules already encouraged the game master to think of D&D as something more than just a series of dungeon crawls, but Dragon #63 put it in just the right combination and concentration for me. I never felt the same way about the game. 

First, take a look at the cover (see right). While I liked a lot of Dragon's covers, this one really seems to capture not only the essence of the issue, but the common reality of the medieval world - even if a fantasy one - bandits in the forest. This painting of highwaymen still resonates with me.

More to follow...

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Romano-Gallic Army (5th Century)

Last week I posted some blogs regarding the armies of the Romans, Franks, and Goths of the late imperial period (4th/5th Centuries). I recently added a link to miniature painter Andy Hawes' blog, which features a Romano-Gallic army of the period. Check it out in this entry.

As a teaser, I have posted a photo of his work on Comes Paulus (Count Paul), one of the last imperial commanders in Gaul.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Slave Pits of the Undercity

This classic Dungeons & Dragons module is still my favorite after nearly 30 years. In the last post I mentioned how much I liked the barbaric orcs. Slave Pits of the Undercity changed my fledgling game in a relatively short time. Orcs made a major appearance in the adventure, serving as mercenaries for the nefarious Slave Lords. This showed me that they could be more than wild, tribal thugs who lived in caves or other wilderness lairs. In Slave Pits they operated out of a desecrated temple (and the sewer tunnels underneath it) in Highport, a veritable "hive of villainy" where evil humanoids ruled. The orcs retained their warband structures, but they were obviously capable of actually dealing with some humans.  This adventure was also the first time I had encountered half-orcs and assassins and prompted me to to collect the AD&D rulebooks as soon as possible. 

Of course the adventure had more going for it than cool orcs. The setting itself was a big plus - the temple and sewers mentioned above. The garrison had a siphon-operated flame throwing cart, which flipped me out; I later learned that the device had historical precedent with similar devices used by the Byzantines and Arabs in the Dark Ages. The module introduced a few new monsters, such as the giant sundew and ant-like aspis (that's one on the cover to the right). A number of tough freelancing monsters also roamed the grounds and tunnels - a basilisk, a wight, harpies, and a doppleganger come to mind. Watch out for the giant weasels!

Finally, a few words about the sample characters included in this module - they were pretty cool. This was back in the day when seven characters was not overloading an adventure - and frankly, you expected a least some of them die. One of the characters, Blodgett the halfling thief, kind of put a new spin on the hobbit archetype. He's the little blonde guy on the cover hanging from the support beams. On the back cover he's waiting to ambush a (half?) orc walking through a doorway. Blodgett seemed to be quite the backstabber.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Orcs and the Caves of Chaos

This week I will share some gaming epiphanies I experienced while playing Dungeons & Dragons. I have enjoyed this game off and on, for nearly 30 years now. I started playing in the spring of 1981, using the rules from the boxed Basic Set. The dice already seemed pretty intriguing. Who knew that dice could have more than 6 sides? 

I fell in love with the orcs very quickly, and the first mini-adventure I ran included some orcs in an underground river. They made great enemies - cunning at times, but mostly brutal and barbaric.They were easy enough to fight at the lowest levels of game play, but they were tough enough - and interesting enough - to use as good monster thugs through mid-level gaming (4th to 7th levels).

The Basic Set's accompanying adventure, Gary Gygax's The Keep on the Borderlands, featured a linked set of orc lairs at a locale known as the Caves of Chaos. It brought a lot of the monsters' characteristics to the table. The orcs weren't just a bunch of statistics; they played like orcs. For example, a sentry watched one cavern entrance by poking his head through a secret wall opening to rest it upon a shelf of head trophies; the two chieftains did not trust each other and would take over their ally's clan if the players killed or captured him. 

The adventure really did a great job of bringing out the flavor of all the monsters that it featured. It had about a dozen or so cave lairs, mostly  inhabited by an assortment of tribal humanoid warbands, but they each behaved differently.

Note: The cover to The Keep on the Borderlands (see right), features old school orcs, complete with boar-like tusks. One of the iconic images of the game is that elf shooting the orc in the chest with an arrow. 

Friday, February 19, 2010

Goths and Romans

Michael Kulikowski's Rome's Gothic Wars is another book that changed how I perceived late antiquity, especially in regards to the barbarian confederations that coalesced on the imperial borders from the middle 3rd Century. In this book yet another image emerges to challenge traditional thoughts that hordes of barbarians either advanced on Rome in great folk migrations and somehow developed politically independent of imperial influence. 

As with Halsall's Barbarian Migrations, we see a picture where smaller barbarian polities evolve into larger ones based on their relationships with the greatest power in their world - Rome. The Goths, along with the Allemani and the Franks, fall into this category. When did the assorted folk who did not necessarily share a common background, let alone ancestors, become the Goths? That answer lies closer to results of Roman policy than anything else.

So where does this lead us to in wargaming? Again, it comes down to the right miniatures for the right armies. A short case study involves the famous Gothic revolt which ultimately ended up in the massacre of a large Roman army at Adrianople in 378 AD. If I recall correctly from the passages in this book, a number of Gothic troops in Roman service - ie. regular Roman troops by any account - joined in the revolt after the Roman officials continued to compound an already volatile situation. Whatever the newly arrived Goths might have looked like at Adrianople, at least some of them probably looked and fought no differently from the Roman army they surrounded and destroyed. 

Indeed this kind of question arises throughout the Goths' intrinsic involvement in Roman military and political affairs over the next century. Does it seem likely that the next generation of Goths, raised within the Roman Empire, looked or fought so much differently?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Early Franks in Late Roman Gaul

Guy Halsall's Barbarian Migrations (mentioned in the last post) also suggests a very interesting theory on the earliest Frankish kingdom in late/post-imperial Gaul (modern France) that made a big difference in the way I perceived the period and its armies. Essentially, the idea is that the first Frankish kingdom was not formed by invading barbarians (you've all seen the big arrows crossing maps of the Roman Empire in history books), but by the last Roman armies already in Gaul when imperial authority collapsed in the last half of the 5th Century. The admittedly confusing accounts of the Roman and Frankish commanders operating in the Loire region - and apparently competing with each other over control of the same army (or armies) -  in the 460s could very well serve as evidence of an Roman army transitioning into a Frankish kingdom.

On the game table this already makes me think that the fur-vested Franks and other outright barbarian types might be more of a minority in a 5th Century Frankish Kingdom army. I would think it would still look more like a Roman army, or at least have some Roman equipment. As for how an Early Franks army should play, that's probably a topic for another post sometime.

Update (February 23)
Andy Hawes, one of my favorite (and award-winning) miniature painters, did a great job with a late 5th Century Romano-Gallic army, which he posted to his blog here.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Guy Halsall's Barbarian Migrations

Professor Guy Halsall's Barbarian Migrations is a game changer - at least if you spend time thinking about Roman and barbarian armies in the late and post-imperial period - and especially if you like to play games with those armies. 

This book is a great read for those interested in the hundred years on either side of the collapse of imperial rule in Western Europe in the late 5th Century. While it does not review the armies mentioned above exclusively, a lot of the political, cultural, and ideological engines that drove the period directly and indirectly impacted the militaristic dynamics of the times. From a gaming point of view, you might find the book challenges you to rethink what really constituted the last imperial Roman armies and their enemies. In some ways, it might be best to think of them in terms of factions instead of the black-and-white Roman v. Barbarian dichotomy. 

There's probably a number of aspects of the period's feel that have no real quantifiable impact on the gaming table. But even those are worth keeping in mind if you play historical games for the sheer enjoyment of playing a game that resonates with your love of actual history.


Monday, February 15, 2010

Pathfinder Society: Everwar

I'm getting ready to relaunch an old campaign, converting characters to the Pathfinder game (see original blog post here). The Pathfinder Society modules seem to be a good way to jump start some games, although I fully plan to utilize my collection of Adventure Paths. 

The Echoes of Everwar series seem the right kind of adventures for the group I have in mind. The related modules focus on a search for artifacts related to a revived menace(?) of sorts. They kind of make me think of classic Tom Baker-era Doctor Who stories in some ways. Anyway, the individual modules are great on their own, but I look forward to the big picture scope of Part IV.

Part II (see picture of cover to the right) is the newest release in the series. Greg A. Vaughan wrote this one - always a plus. I've been a fan of his adventures for many years now. 

Friday, February 12, 2010

Siege of Jerusalem 1099

Of course, Wargames Illustrated's First Crusade theme issue wasn't all about me. As I stated in the initial post of this week of blogs, a lot of people came together for this project.

Author Neil Smith handled an in-depth review of the crusaders' hurried campaign against the Holy City and the factional problems in leadership that hindered them from moving against their objective for almost a year after they captured Antioch (and withstood its attempted recapture). Their unbelievably successful lightning march in the spring of 1099 put them deep within enemy territory. A well-timed delivery of wood and craftsmen at the port of Jaffa enabled them to erect massive siege towers with which they finally took the city. The battles for Jerusalem's walls were pretty incredible, the resulting massacre of its citizens unbelievable.

Neil wrote a very cool game scenario for the gauntlet that was the crusader's mission to Jaffa. He captures the Franks' divided command structure and agendas for personal glory quite well as they try to escort the crucial cargo of siege supplies back to Jerusalem.

The article features a photograph of a scale model siege tower. The very excellent modeler-supreme Paul Davies constructed this marvel and the issue features a how-to article for building one yourself.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Last Battle of Antioch (Wargames Illustrated)

I wrote a scenario for the crusader's breakout from Antioch (June 1098). After taking the city after a long, cruel winter, the crusaders found themselves trapped within the walls shortly after their moment of triumph. Surrounded by a larger army and with little to sustain them in the way of depleted food stores, the Franks decided to make a last ditch effort against the enemy hordes. Fortunately, they had excellent tactical leadership with Bohemund of Taranto and Robert of Normandy, religious fervor spurred by the discovery of Christ's Lance, and a reluctant alliance as their opponent. They actually won the battle against the overwhelming numbers of foes  who for the most part, don't seem to have fought - the ones that did were challenge enough, though.

This was a cool game scenario to design because it does away with the typical mounted crusader image. Many of the knights engaged in this battle without horses because they had lost so many during the hard siege. Bohemund commands most of the cavalry in his reserve formation, punching at the enemy as needed. 

This article was originally written as part of the 'Introduction to the First Crusade' article, but instead lives on the Wargames Illustrated website (and a pdf) here.

The photograph is taken from the online article page. I really love the Perry Brothers' work and Dan F's eye for pics.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Battle of Dorylaeum, 1 July 1097

I wrote this article and scenario as part of Wargames Illustrated's recent First Crusade theme issue.  

The battle of Dorylaeum took place in the river valley hinterland of Anatolia (Turkey), where the large vanguard of the crusader army found itself caught in a large ambush shortly after its initial successes against the Seljuk Turks at Nicaea. Their Turkish foes caught them at a valley junction and the Frankish warriors and pilgrims hurriedly set up a defensive position at the edge of a marsh. They withstood repeated charges and volleys of arrows and javelins from morning to afternoon, when the rearguard arrived to rebuff and outflank the persistent enemy horsemen.

As a game scenario I approached this engagement in two phases. Just like the real event, if the desperate vanguard survives the initial onslaught, the game continues to the next phase, when help decisively arrives. Both players get a chance to pour it on a disadvantaged opponent.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The First Crusade

Wargames Illustrated recently published a First Crusade-themed issue (#267/Jan 2010), which featured a couple of articles that I wrote - 'Introduction to the First Crusade' and 'The Battle of Dorylaeum'. More than that, the editors allowed me to drive the theme content - ie. suggest other articles and graphic content. I thoroughly enjoyed getting a chance to glimpse the editorial side of things and I certainly gained a better appreciation of one of their responsibilities. For me, this was another kind of milestone.

Before going further, I need to seriously thank the editors for what they did to make the finished work look so good. The authors involved with the other First Crusade articles really took the ball and ran with it - and I'm grateful to their efforts as well. The last kudos go to the fabulous Perry Brothers of wargaming miniature fame. The articles primarily used figures from their collection - who could ask for more on a project like this? Well, I suppose the last bit of icing is that some of the material (not published in the printed magazine) made it onto the new Wargames Illustrated website to give folks a taste of what's in the magazines.

I'll review some of the individual articles in following posts. In the meantime, follow this link to the WI website to see a First Crusade chronology.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Legend of the Five Rings

I'm not a big fan of collectible card games. I made an exception for L5R for a few years in the late 90s. I found the interesting fantasy Asian setting and characters appealing. Each of the game's clans had a specialty for achieving victory in one way or another - a big plus in my book. Military, honor, and the wisdom of the rings are all paths to victory.

With the game's relaunch with the Celestial Edition last year, my curiosity brought me back to the card table. I compare the increased focus on keywords similar to the d20 epiphany of 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons. While I like to win games, I mostly enjoy the different kind of interplay that occurs with different clan match-ups. Even better, a player may tweak his clan deck and pursue different kinds of strategies without losing the essential theme of the clan.

My favorite clan has been the Scorpion, although I like to dabble with other clans. The Scorpions tend to be about dirty tricks - rumor, lies, and murder. The attached card picture is taken from AEG's Celestial Edition preview. More may be seen here.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Dark Ones

I'll share a personal milestone on this post - the first time one of my articles received magazine cover art.

Dragon 322 features my 'Ecology of the Dark Ones' and they put a very cool dark stalker on the cover. I like the way the artist veered away from the blacks and grays and used a red hooded cloak.

I wrote about half a dozen ecology articles for Dragon and Kobold Quarterly. For those of you not familiar with the format, the ecology article explores the individual and societal lives of game monsters and usually includes some kind of "crunch" material, such as a statistics for variant species or special items. The Dark Ones ecology, for instance, features a number of alchemical items that compliment their sneaky tactics. I like these kinds of articles because they help the gamemaster to not just think of monsters as statistics, but as ways to create interesting encounters.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Battle of Pydna 168 BC

I contribute fairly regularly to Wargames Illustrated. This article was my first one published after the Battlefront re-launch of this excellent magazine (in #261). It takes a good look at Rome’s Third Macedonian War and the big showdown at Pydna.

I think this one is hard to understand from a gaming point of view – it’s just so obvious that you don’t send phalanxes of pikemen up a rough hill. I think it’s a case where the Macedonians had the wind behind them and only saw hesitant Romans and the chance to plunder their camp. The game scenario was a bit of a challenge (for the reasons cited above), but its special rules encourage and reward the Macedonian player for taking an aggressive role despite some obvious tactical disadvantages – and neither can the Roman player just sit and wait for the Macedonians to stumble their way to victory or defeat. Any game that pulls in almost every archetypical warrior from the Greco-Roman Mediterranean world is worth trying out on the tabletop.

I thank D. Leavesley and B. Pickel for helping me playtest the original scenario concept.