Sunday, November 22, 2020

Is marching order grognardy nonsense?

Wizard's Crown was a pretty decent computer RPG of the early eighties. The tactical combat system was robust for its day, using a top-down map with placement and movement mattering in fairly sophisticated ways.  If you played any of the popular "gold box" D&D computer games, you played an upgrade of the Wizard's Crown system with larger and more colorful sprites. 

I didn't get anywhere near finishing Wizard's Crown. As I recall, something about the skill system was too grindy for my taste and it took a long time into the game before any cool monsters showed up. The "vorpal bunny" of Monty Python fame is the one decent monster I can remember right now.

One feature I remember distinctly about the game is the marching system. On the strategic map, the party is represented by a single anthropomorphic icon, as was common in the day. But when moving on a smaller scale map, the whole party is displayed. Like the image below. The party is entering a tavern from the left side of the screen. The box around the one character indicates he has been selected by the player. Any keypress for movement will move that character. The rest of the party follows, but not in an entirely predictable way.

You can see this play out in the video below (from which I grabbed the image above), which I've queued up to the bar scene. One slightly confusing factor to know ahead of time: two door guards come into view only as the first party member enters the tavern.

I very much like how marching plays out. Generally, the party follows the leader in something resembling the marching order desired, but sometimes people wander a bit out of position. For example, a combat can start at an inopportune time when your wizard, normally well-covered by fighters, is a square or two out of position and thus vulnerable to enemy crossbow fire.

Which brings me to the question in the title of this post. With its wargaming background, where pieces move across the board in orderly ways like chess pieces, D&D tends to assume that marching order is a fixed thing. Heck, that is one of the main uses for minis mentioned in early rules sets: using the PCs' figures to set the marching order. But are D&D parties more like marching Prussians or undisciplined skirmishers? 

This depends on the level of discipline that you believe your party can achieve. Unless there's some reason to believe they are  well-drilled professional dungeoneers, I think it is more likely that the party generally resembles the marching order at any given point rather than exactly replicates it. Maybe at the moment an encounter occurs the halfling is examing a small mushroom and is out of position. Maybe the cleric stopped to scratch his butt and is a couple of steps away from where he should be. This makes sense to me given my usual assumption that the typical assemblage of murderhobo types lack a certain level of operational sophistication.

The trick, of course, is how to implement this insight into a tabletop game. Given how much time is spent in my games trudging through smelly tunnels, any new mechanic would have to not be a drag to do four or five times in a session. Would something like this work?

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Wisdom from the Past: Tony Bath


So I recently read Tony Bath's 1973 book Setting Up a Wargames Campaign. This guy isn't discussed a ton in old school gaming scenes (though I'm sure if I looked I'd find that Grognardia and/or Playing at the World have already written about him and I just missed it), but he is one of the granddads of miniatures wargaming. His Hyborian age campaign was one of the first, if not the first, attempt to build an imaginary milieu specifically for longform gaming. Today I wanted to share my three favorite bits from Tony's excellent book. The first is a statement fairly early on about the mental attitude with which one should approach the hobby:
It is however true of campaigning, as of so many other things, that the amount of enjoyment to be obtained from it is pro rata to the amount of effort that is put into it This will vary from person to person and group to group according to how much time and interest people have to spare, but the main ingredient necessary is enthusiasm for the project and a sense of responsibility toward the other players.
I really like that last bit. He goes back to that theme once or twice in the book when he describes how rules disputes and weird edge cases were solved in his wargaming circles by simply having adult conversations until a consensus was reached. What a crazy concept! He also mentions in passing his primary means of discouraging cheating: stop playing with cheaters. Keep in mind that Bath operated during a time when the wargaming scene was so small he very probably knew every active wargamer in England. The price of excluding a player was quite high in terms of shrinking the player pool, but Tony was quite willing to pay that price if the player in question was socially obnoxious.

The other two things I wanted to share are game mechanicy. The first is his card-based system for fleshing out character traits for rulers, generals, etc., in his Hyborian campaign.
So, for each person's character you deal out seven cards. The first card dealt will decide upon his or her's most outstanding characteristic: a Heart will indicate Good Nature, a Diamond Love of Wealth, a Spade Ambition, and a Club Lave of War in a man, Patriotism in a woman. The value of the card will determine the depth of this passion, a high card being very strong, a low card relatively weak. The rest of the cards are used individually, and each hasa value of its own, as given below: 
  • Ace: Spade or Club, a disloyal intriguer. Diamond, loyal intriguer. Heart, exceptional good nature. 
  • King: Spade or Club, Energy: Heart or Diamond, Courage · 
  • Queen: Great lover 
  • Knave: Spade/Club, Unreliability, oath-breaker, liar. Heart/Diamond, Merciless, revenge-prone. 
  • Ten: Loyalty, absolute in Diamonds, grading down through Hearts, Clubs, Spades.
  • Nine: Physical beauty, except for Spade, which is Ugliness.
  • Eight: Spade/Club, Cruelty Heart/Diamond, Generosity.
  • Seven: Spade/Club, Personality Heart/Diamond, Jealous of Family Honour
  • Six: Spade/Club, Lazyness Heart/Diamond, Charm
  • Five: Spade/Club, Wisdom Heart/Diamond, Cunning
  • Four: Spade/Club, Stupidity Heart/Diamond, Cowardice
  • Three: Spade Club, Bad Temper Heart/Diamond, Good Temper
  • Two: Spade/Club, Arrogance, Pride. Heart/Diamond, Merciful.

Bath also notes than an upside down Ace indicates some sort of physical abnormality or defect, such as a hunchback. I immediately thought of Peter Dinklage's character on Game of Thrones and Emperor Claudius' stutter in I, Claudius. Anyway, here's how Tony puts these card draws all together:

So, you deal out your seven cards and proceed to evaluate the character. In most cases. this will be straightforward enough, but on some occasions conflicting cards will show up. lf, for instance, you tum up a Nine of Hearts and a Nine of Spades, then physical beauty obvlously cancels out physical ugliness and you discard both cards. An example of a character reading might be a deal of Knave, King, Ten and Nine of Hearts, Nine of Spades, Nine and Two of clubs. This would give you, assuming a male, a very good natured fellow, brave, handsome, very loyal, but a touch arrogant. Of your three nines, two are beauty and one ugliness, so the three finish up as one beauty card.

The final thing I wanted to share was Tony's ingenious method for hidden movement on the campaign map when only two people can play in a campaign:

Where only two people are engaged in a campaign they will have to make do without the services of an umpire, and problems therefore increase. Obviously they cannot both just move pins or counters around a single map; even though the opposing player may not be sure exactly what the pins or counters represent, it will still give him far more information than he is entitled to. Some method of concealment must therefore be devised, and one of the best is the matchbox method. For this, you need a matchbox for every reference point - either hexagon or hexagon face - on your map. It may take you a while to collect this number of matchboxes, but if you appeal to friends, neighbours etc. to collect for you things will go quicker. You then glue these matchboxes together in a square or oblong as shown on the diagram, and number both sides of each box with the map reference it represents. 

Your two players then sit at a table with the matchbox collection placed between them. Each has his own in front of him, but far enough away to be illegible to his opponent. Each has made his opening dispositions on his own map and provided himself wlth a numbered counter to represent every separate force he is using. Moving alternately, the players now place their counters in the matchboxes and, as the troops move, move them from box to box. In the course of this, if they traverse several hexagons, the player is of course entitled to look in the requisite matchboxes representing the spaces he has moved through. It will probably be best for the player not moving to tum his back while the other does so, otherwise by looking at the reverse of the matchboxes he could possibly gain some unfair indication of where his opponent is moving. [Following this Tony briefly discusses not playing with cheaters.] 

Up till the time that a player finds one of his opponent's counters in a matchbox that he is entering or passing through, no disclosure is of course made of strengths, dispositions etc. When two counters reach the same box, however, same information has to be given... A commander who discovered that he was faced by greatly superior numbers was able ta refuse battle and withdraw; unless, of course, his opponent had managed to cut off his retreat by some method, either by placing a second force across it or by interposing some obstacle. This led to quite a bit of jockeying for position, and encouraged both sides to push out small forces in advance · to feel out the enemy and try to gain a picture of his overall dispositions.

This matchbox map approach is an absolute delight. In addition to the hidden movement element, it would also allow a campaign map full of counters to be easily stored on a shelf in between play sessions.

I love it when I read old gaming texts and find great ideas ready for revival. 

Saturday, November 14, 2020

First Casualties in the Disputed Zone

So last weekend my daughter and I spent a few hours painting some crude spaceship miniatures I made out cereal and cracker boxes. It was a fun little craft time with my number one pal.

Today we playtested the first full draft of Disputed Zone, a set of spaceship rules I've been working on. If you're familiar with Full Thrust, Starmada, Star Fleet Battles and Star Frontiers Knight Hawks, there's not much new to these rules. But the specific pastiche is what I like in spaceship games, which is large number of figures zooming around until they explode spectacularly.

But today we only playtested a one-on-one duel. The Brandibuck, a Twilight class light cruiser from the Quazonian Harmony (the purple vessel) encountered the Daggergaze, a Durgozian destroyer of the Swift Vengeance class (a brown vessel barely visible thanks to the rusty-red carpet square). Neither vessel was able to bring its primary weapon to bear, but a lucky shot from the Daggergaze's secondary lasers penetrated the Brandibuck's shields and blew it to smithereens. We only got through one full turn and probably would have done another, but the oven timer went off. The pizza was done. Elizabeth swore that the Brandibuck would be avenged some day.

She took the photos, by the way.


Wednesday, November 04, 2020

the mightiest of torches

Here's an old illo from Debis Loubet, one of the greats of game illustration in my opinion. You may recognize his style from the Ultima series of games. He also did work for Metagaming and was the illustrator for Steve Jackson's Cardboard Heroes, the first paper minis I ever encountered.

Anyhoo, I wanted to share this particular pic because it shows some members of this dungeon party carrying two-handed torches. You can find historical depictions of these bigass, long-burning torches in late medieval and early modern art, but I think this is the first instance I've found of them making their way into a D&D-type illo. Here's one of my favorite historical depictions:

How might these bad boys be statted up for our games? To be worth devoting both hands (and thus making it one party member's whole deal for the expedition - another good reason to have some NPC lackeys in the crew) the gain in burn time should be substantial, possibly also with a small gain in the amount of light it throws. Maybe 5 times the burn time, with +10' to the radius illuminated? For that, it should cost more than 5 times the price of a standard torch, maybe ten times. The thing to watch out for when pricing for your campaign would be to find a sweet spot between the low cost of a regular torch and the longer burn and better control of a lantern and oil.

PS: Also, note that several people in Loubet's illo are carrying torches. A dungeon crew with just one light source is begging the DM to find a way to extinguish it.

Tuesday, November 03, 2020

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

The Greater and Lesser Blorrp

The Krimaxian fleet just priot to the Battle of Aremis IV.

The traditions of the Krimaxians lack the medals, ribbands, commendations, and other post-battle honors employed by other space navies to encourage gallantry in combat. Terran social scientists ascribe this omission to the high value placed by Krimaxian culture on attending to one’s duty, especially under duress. The closest Krimaxian equivalent to typical space navy honors are the Greater and Lesser Blorrp. Taking the form of abstract statuettes rather than worn objects, an old Terran joke refers to the Blorrps as the Oscars for Best Captain and Best Supporting Captain. Immediately after (or as soon as practical) any encounter with an enemy force in which fire is exchanged (i.e. both sides must shoot, Blorrps are not awarded for border incidents involving a trigger-happy gunner losing their cool), the surviving Captains consult with one another to confer the Blorrps. 

Outside observers are often astonished to learn that there is no prerequisite that the Krimaxian forces win the battle. It is a tenet of the insouciant Krimaxian warrior code that no battle is won or lost except in historical perspective.

Rules for Voting

  • Ballots are secret and no discussion is allowed.

  • Each Captain submits one ballot.

  • The ballot records a vote for Greater Blorrp and a separate vote for Lesser Blorrp.

  • You may not vote for the same Captain for both Blorrps.

  • You are allowed to vote for yourself for Greater Blorrp and there is no cultural stigma attached to doing so.

  • You are not allowed to vote for yourself for Lesser Blorrp. In Krimaxian culture that is considered an act of false humility.

  • Any Captain who is dead, captured, or otherwise unavailable for the vote is assumed to vote for themselves for Lesser Blorrp (this supersedes the above rules).

  • Whoever gets the most votes wins the Blorrp..

    • In the event of a tie for Greater Blorrp, the winner of the Lesser Blorrp voting actually receives the Greater Blorrp and then awards the Lesser Blorrp to their choice among the tied parties
    • If the Greater Blorrp is awarded but there is a tie on Lesser Blorrp voting, no Lesser Blorrp is awarded.
    • If both Blorrp ballots tie, the Captain with seniority awards each to separate recipients. It is typical for the senior Captain to give himself the Greater Blorrp. Again, it would be considered an act of false humility to give oneself the Lesser Blorrp.

Traditionally, a Captain receiving their first Blorrp sponsors an elaborate feast for their crew at the next opportunity. If the Captain is dead or missing but the crew survives, the other Captains who took part in the ballot split the costs. If the whole ship was lost the money normally spent on the feast is forwarded to the kinship groups from which the crew were drawn.

The Blorrps themselves are handmade by Krimaxian artisans on the homeworld, so no two are identical. Most known examples are made of a rough pinkish-purplish stone or a polymer designed to resemble such stone, but some are carved from a darkish wood. They typically stand somewhere between six and twelve inches tall. Greater Blorrps tend to resemble the Greek letter Phi with the inner bar missing, while Lesser Blorrps resemble triangles or chevrons pointing down. Both varieties of Blorrp features an opening through the center and either a wide, flat integral base or a tripod structure at the bottom.

Sketches of four Blorrps observed by Lt. Commander
Vance Dillhonker during his captivity on a Krimaxian vessel.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Farsiders unite against Xorkaelian tyranny!

So this is the map of the setting used in most Traveller products. Each white rectangle on that map is 24 parsecs wide by 32 parsecs tall (78.2775 light years by 104.37 light years, if you'd prefer). Those white rectangles are called sectors in the terminology of the game and each sector typically contains 3 or 4 hundred worlds you can visit, all of which have been sketched out using one of the greatest game mechanics in RPG history, the Universal World Profile. There's enough material on that level to riff a whole campaign out of a sector's worth of UWPs. The Imperial Fringe does just that. The PCs are hired to survey the Spinward Marches sector.)

Even with all those worlds and all that space, in the greater scheme of things that map doesn't really cover much of the galaxy. Check this out:

That little red blob labeled Charted Space? That's the map above shown in scale to the Milky Way. Thanks to Joshua Bell and his great resource for that view.

At 256 parsecs tall by 384 parsecs wide, the Charted Space map fits neatly into one hex on this map:

This is the board for Federation & Empire, the strategic board game for Star Fleet Battles. The round blue area is Federation space. The grey area down and to the left is Klingon territory and the grey to the right is the Romulan Star Empire. The little dark bit between the three at the bottom of the map is where the Tholians weave their webs.

Each hex on that map is 500 parsecs across. This is really convenient in that the galaxy is maybe that thick along the spiral arms, allowing a 2-d map to accurately describe a volume of 3-d space. However, I've always been slightly annoyed by this scale. Here's why.
This chart proves that I'm
right and the F&E designers
are wrong. Honest.

Star Fleet Battles
is a fork of the Star Trek universe, incorporating the Original Series, the Animated Series, and the Star Trek Star Fleet Technical Manual by Franz Joseph. The latter is one of the truly great examples of fandom lore. One of the things that Franz Joseph does is define what the heck a Warp Factor is. Turns out that if you cube the number of the Warp Factor, that gives you the speed in terms of units of C, e.g. Warp Factor 6 (the safe cruising speed of the original USS Enterprise) is 6 x 6 x 6 C, or 216 times the speed of light. That means, according to this source at least and my own limited arithmetical skill, it would take Captain Kirk's Funtime Pals over seven years to cross a single Federation & Empire hex. Seeing as how each turn is six months, my guess is that the F&E designers ignore Franz Joseph on this point.

Since Federation & Empire first came out in the 1980's, the lovely folks at Amarillo Design Bureau (who make SFB and F&E) have expanded their universe even more. There's now an adjacent area of space, the ominously titled Omega Sector, with 20+ new polities and hundreds of more spaceships you can blow up. They've also mapped out at least one Magellanic Cloud. But my favorite expansion to Amarillo Design Bureau's expansion of the Star Trek universe is this one:

Companion Games came out of the blue in 1993 or so with it's own chunk of the SFB universe, located on the opposite side of the galaxy. They called it the Far Side and had their own races and spaceships, completely compatible with Star Fleet Battles. As a non-canonical supplement to a non-canonical and super duper complicated* Star Trek game, the Companion Games material didn't exactly set the world on fire. But I'm a sucker for weird little corners of fandom like this. In full SFB tradition, each spot on that map has its own unique navy with its own special weapons. How different ships with different weird subsystems that only one species possess interact is half the fun of Star Fleet Battles.

Anyway, I recently learned that the Amarillo have started mapping out the whole dang galaxy, so I used my limited photoshoppery skills to add the Far Side to the official map:

The blue circle near the bottom is the Federation. What is labeled "Alpha Octant" is basically the Federation & Empire map projected onto a polar coordinate system. It looks like the Far Side overlaps several Xorkaelian Slave Sectors. I don't know who these Xorkaelian's are, but they obviously aren't nice people. Now I am imaging a war of conquest as the Far Siders, used to fighting among themselves for ages, must unite or be crushed by the Xorkaelian menace. I wouldn't use SFB to find out what happens next. My opinion of SFB is pretty much the opposite of Companion Games: I love the spaceships, but can't deal with the game mechanics. There are a dozen or more ship-to-ship games that are faster and more explodey than SFB. Starmada is one of my favorites, though I haven't played the last couple of editions.  
*Seriously, you may think modern D&D is complicated, but full-blown all-the-bells-and-whistles SFB blows it out of the ding dang water. The only comparable non-computerized game I know is Advanced Squad Leader.