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.