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Game Idea From The Bad Astronomer!

I’ve been a fan of Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog for a long time. It’s always full of cool science information and sometimes good articles on skepticism. Phil was even the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation for a while.

Today he posted a link to one of his other blogs. Unfortunately this one is behind a pay wall, but the title alone is enough to inspire gaming ideas.

What headline could be so evocative?

Ancient Radioactive Lunar Volcano!

 
 

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Boldly They Rode And Well

This past weekend I got try Napoleonic wargaming for the first time!

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Yes, I know the headline isn’t from a Napoleonic poem, but you can’t say no to the Light Brigade.

For all the years I’ve been a gamer historical wargaming is not something I’ve done much of, so this was something I was looking forward to. I was not disappointed. Six of us gathered round a large table to lead the Franco-Polish alliance against the Russian Empire, our armies arrayed in 15mm glory.

The rules set we used was Grande Armee, written by Sam Mustafa. It’s an excellent set of rules, crunchy enough to give you the feel of managing armies while streamlined enough that it is easy to pick up and run with. Only two of us had played the system before, but all of us were quickly up-to-speed without substantial pre-game instruction.

The game is divided into Turns and Phases. The number of Phases per Turn is variable, so unlike most games it’s best to measure the game by how many Phases were played instead of Turns. At the beginning of each Phase a die is rolled. If it’s higher than the last Phase number, the Turn continues. If it’s equal or lower, the Turn ends.

This is important for two reasons. The first is that each army has a number of Command Points to spend. These are used to automatically activate your sub-commanders, who can then issue orders to their troops. These commanders can also be activated by a sufficient die roll, but spending Command Points ensures that they are active and doing what you want them to do. Command Points are only replenished at the beginning of a Turn.

The second reason ending a Turn is important is that it gives you a chance to reinforce damaged units and rally routed units. Units have Strength Points. At the beginning of a Turn you can roll to “heal” them. A unit that has run out of Strength Points is routed and removed from the board, but you can try to return them to the field at reduced strength on the beginning of the next Turn. If that unit is routed again it is removed from the game.

The end result is that if a Turn drags on your command-and-control becomes strained as you run out of Command Points and your forces wear down.  Our first Turn had five Phases and by the end it felt like our armies had been spent, slamming into each other without the opportunity to regroup for too long. It was a neat effect.

Another thing I like about the rules we used is that there is little down time. Everyone is planning, moving, and fighting and not waiting around for long. Even if one of your commanders doesn’t activate it doesn’t mean they are out of the action. A commander may sit inactive, but the corps will still defend itself. It may re-position itself without attacking. It may choose to go full attack on the nearest enemy forces. But an inactive corps isn’t truly inactive, it’s just not doing exactly what you want them to do. This does a good job of giving the feel of confusion that happens on a battlefield.

Best of all an inactive corps will not do anything stupid. It won’t choose to run away or move in an inane manner just because you failed your command role. This means that the mechanics of the game do not frustrate the players, which is a major plus for the rules.

After we’d gone through two turns we decided to assess the battlefield and decide if we should proceed with another Turn or call the battle. The scenario allowed for another Turn before the end of battle, but we decided that thanks to heroic efforts by the Don Cossack forces and a dramatic push by Russian guard troops, the Franco-Polish alliance would withdraw in good order, give the Russian Empire a marginal victory, and live to fight another day. Meanwhile we the players all had a great time and look forward to taking the field again.

This was a great first exposure to large scale historical miniatures gaming for me. I can see why so many people become ardent fans of the genre and if I had the time and resources to collect and paint my own armies, I could easily get sucked in. Maybe someday.

For now I’ll revel in the glory of past battles and look forward to leading lead across the field once more.

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Polish and Russian Cavalry about to have a close encounter.

 
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Posted by on March 23, 2015 in Gaming, History, Wargaming

 

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More Handy Notepads

Now is a good time to visit your local Half Price Books!

As if you needed a reason.

I found another line of pocket notebooks that is just perfect for on-the-go dungeon mapping. Leuchtturm 1917 is a German manufacturer of fine notebooks, and let me add that it pleases me to no end that in an era of cost cutting and digital tablets a company can still exist based on making quality notebooks. That it’s a German company also seems appropriate.

The model I found is a nice 3.5″ x 6″ with a 17×26 grid pattern on both pages. Technically 18 across, but the last column is on the gutter and isn’t easily used. The book has a thread binding, which on the downside means it doesn’t lay flat as easily as a spiral binding, but on the plus side it is sturdy, attractive, and reduces the profile making it fit in your pocket better. There are other nice touches in the design, such as acid free “no bleed” paper, an expandable pocket in the back cover, a built in page marker, and a band to hold it closed. These would be fine journals in any case, but the grid pattern makes them wonderful for gamers.

The US distributor for Leuchtturm is Kikkerland Design and they sell this model for $12.95. When I found them at Half Price Books they cost just under $5 and when I went back for more they’d been marked down again to $2.99!

I now have several Leuchtturm notebooks sitting on the shelf next to my Blue Sky planners.

 
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Posted by on March 8, 2015 in Cool Stuff, Dungeon Design, Gaming, Maps

 

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Ye Olde Gaming Shoppes

Greetings Programs,

Life has been quite hectic recently, which has left less time for blogging and a lot less time for gaming. So posting will continue being less consistent than normal (as if it was ever consistent). However, even though I haven’t been gaming I have had the opportunity to hit some really good stores.

First on the list is Yottaquest. Located on the north side of Cincinnati this is a store I’ve known about for a while but just visited for the first time. It’s a good sized store with a friendly staff who were happy to talk. The front of the store is dominated by Warhammer and similar miniatures displays, as well as popular gateway board and card games. Moving deeper you’ll find a wide variety of offerings to suit whatever geekish tastes you prefer, and in good quantities. Role playing games of all types are represented, including a decent selection of Dungeon Crawl Classics products. Board and war games fill several shelves and there is a generous selection of comics and manga. I am particularly delighted that they sell used and out-of-print games, just the thing to warm my OSR heart. I am impressed by how the store manages to embrace current gaming store trends while keeping an old school game store feeling. Yottaquest is definitely on my “to visit” list for future trips.

Next on my list was re-visiting two of my old haunts. One of Cincinnati’s small communities is Mt. Lookout, which boasts a nice collection of locally owned restaurants and shops. I used to make regular trips down to Mt. Lookout to grab a burger at Zip’s Cafe and hit the stores, but it’s been a good ten years since I’ve last been there. When I found myself in the area with some time on my hands I jumped at the chance to drop by, with two stores in particular as my goal.

Boardwalk Hobby Shop is a nice store with its own distinctive style. The biggest draw at Boardwalk is modeling and there are kits of every type available, as well as all the paints and tools you could want. They don’t carry any miniature gaming figures but they have a better selection of paints and brushes than most stores that are dominated by Warhammer. Aside from the models they also have a good selection of board games, ranging from classic and family games to more “gamer” oriented fare. Boardwalk also offers a section of puzzles, including a better selection of 3D puzzles than I’ve seen in a long time.

Unfortunately for me, since my last visit they have moved away from carrying role playing games. They only offer a small number of 5th Edition D&D books where once two aisles were filled by D&D, GURPS, and Chaosium titles. But if you are looking for a board game, model, or painting supplies, Boardwalk is a good place to visit.

Last is the jewel in the crown, the place I most wanted to visit again, that store which makes my wallet tremble in fear. The Dust Jacket.

The Dust Jacket is not a gaming store, it’s a rare book store. The first thing you see when you walk in are shelves filled with leather bound tomes, set collections, and 1st edition books. Moving deeper you’ll find an impressive collection of books on all subjects. Their world and military history sections are particularly good. This place is a treasure vault for bookworms that goes beyond a simple used bookstore. You’ll find books on World War One written in the 1920’s, poetry books from the 19th century, novels that have never been reprinted, and more.

If we lived in a Call of Cthulhu world this store would either be our last hope or the place where the end of humanity begins.

If I have any nits to pick with The Dust Jacket, it’s that their science fiction section is unimpressive. However the wonderful selection of history books more than makes up for it.

Often when you revisit an old favorite store you find that things have changed or that they aren’t as good as you remembered. In the case of The Dust Jacket, I swear the store is even better than I remembered. I will not let another decade go by without returning, no matter how much my wallet begs me to do otherwise.

Agent13small

My Favorite Yottaquest Acquisition!

 
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Posted by on March 1, 2015 in Cool Stuff, Gaming, Reviews

 

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The Secret of Bone Hill

“Danger lurks in the Lendore Isles. Bands of evil creatures prowl the hills overlooking the town of Restenford, seeking unwary victims.”

-The Secret of Bone Hill, front cover

If you ask an old Dungeons & Dragons player what module best represents the game you’ll get plenty of answers. For many it’s The Keep on the Borderlands, home of the iconic Caves of Chaos. Others will say In Search of the Unknown, or The Village of Hommlet, or maybe even Tomb of Horrors. These are fine choices, but for me the answer is module L1, The Secret of Bone Hill.

Written by Lenard Lakofka and published in 1981, Bone Hill has a dose of everything a D&D party could want. The module is designed for 2-8 characters from levels 2-4, which makes it suitable for adventurers with some experience under their belts, looking to face bigger challenges. It provides a modest sized wilderness area with several different locations containing both random and set encounters. There are some dynamic threats for the DM to use, such as a group of brigands and a pack of gnolls, and places weird and fantastic that may provide aid instead of danger to a party that minds its manners.

There is the town of Restenford, which is well mapped and completely keyed out, rivaling the village of Hommlet for completeness. All the townsfolk, including the inhabitants of the baron’s castle, are given names and stats. Only a few are given descriptions beyond this, but it’s easy to build motivations on top of what the Dungeon Master is given and if the DM is inclined towards intrigue then it won’t be hard to incorporate into the lives of the townsfolk. Restenford is an archetypical D&D fantasy town, mostly human with a smattering of other races living alongside them. Magic is also not too uncommon, with several magic-users living within the town and more than one person armed with low powered magical weapons and armor.

Then there is Bone Hill itself and the ruined castle looming over the countryside. There is a good mix of standard and new monsters lurking within its depths and two factions that have an uneasy coexistence. This is a well realized dungeon site, not very large but well thought out and stocked with a generous amount of treasure for those who survive its dangers.

The module also uses plenty of old school concepts in its design. Most importantly it makes no assumptions about the party’s motivations, beyond that they seek adventure. There are no quest givers with exclamation marks hovering over their heads, waiting to tell the players what needs to be done. It is up to them to explore Restenford and its environs and it is up to them to unearth the stories that will lead them into danger.

That’s not to say the adventure doesn’t give them some direction. In true old school fashion Bone Hill has an extensive list of rumors that the party can hear during their interactions around the town. How much they can trust those rumors is another decision the party will have to make and a wise group will be cautious about what they believe.

One related detail that I enjoy is that a few of the illustrations depict scenes from the rumor table that are not true. It makes me wonder if these rumors are based on things that happened in the author’s gaming group.

There are two other details that I appreciate about The Secret of Bone Hill. The first is that the castle of Restenford is completely mapped out and keyed, with rumors around the town that the ruling family’s wealth is secured within. As I mentioned, the module makes no assumptions about the adventurers’ motivations and the castle is not simply a place to go and receive quests from the baron and baroness. A group may prefer to try their luck at robbing the castle instead of risking the horrors of Bone Hill.

The other detail I love is found at the ruins on Bone Hill. The history of the ruined castle is not told within the module, but a lot of its story can be discerned from the map and the location descriptions. The remains of siege engines can be found outside of ruined walls. There are areas that show substantial fire damage, including burn circles marked on the map. Many skeletal remains can be found around the siege engines and within the courtyard, telling of a fierce battle between bugbears and humans. We don’t know the details, but the clues to the castle’s history are compelling, all the more because they are told through what the party sees and can deduce.

If there is one criticism I have it’s that the main threats lack an element of the fantastic. There is no dragon, no demon lord, no alien monstrosity that strikes terror into the players when their characters come face-to-face with it. Nothing that is epic by its existence alone. This can be remedied by developing the personalities of the intelligent villains and making them a more aggressive threat to the characters and the region.

Of course, you can also add a horrifying threat of your own.

The Secret of Bone Hill encapsulates what I think of in old school Dungeons & Dragons. It’s a small sandbox where low-to-mid level characters can make their own way, free from any expectations beyond their thirst for adventure. There are mysteries, there are opportunities for role playing, there are unforgiving threats, and a wealth of treasure to be discovered.

The Secret of Bone Hill is available in .pdf format on dndclassics.com. Give it a look, you won’t be disappointed.

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Posted by on February 23, 2015 in Dungeon Design, Fantasy, Gaming, Reviews

 

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It Came from the Blogosphere!

Several very cool things have popped up in my RSS feed lately.

  • The Hack & Slash blog has done an impressive analysis of the various treasure types in the 1st Edition Monster Manual that discusses what each type consists of, what types of monsters are assigned to them, and what the treasure types say about the ecology of the creatures involved. It’s an impressive bit of analysis that’s both informative and interesting to read. The follow up post about how to use treasure hoards in adventure design is also quite good.
  • Dyson’s Dodecahedron has announced that he’s hit his goal of $300 per update via Patreon. Dyson has always offered his maps for personal use, but hitting this goal means he’s making them freely available for commercial use (with proper attribution of course). That’s both cool and generous. Dyson’s maps are excellent and if more people start using them in commercial adventures? That’s a win for everyone. It’s also neat to see someone really leveraging Patreon to do what they love and give back to the OSR community.
  • The amazingly cool Ask About Middle-Earth Tumblr was involved in helping fact check the latest CGP Grey video that does an excellent job of summing up how the rings of power work. I’ve become quite a fan of the Ask About Middle-Earth blog (along with a gazillion other people) and the author’s sense of fun and passion for Tolkien’s works always shows through in her work. Check out her site and definitely watch the video.
  • Lastly, I saw the image below on the Jewel in the Skull Tumblr page and it just makes my Saturday morning cartoon soul just sing. If my Google-Fu is accurate, these links go to the inker and colorist for this geekishly wonderful cross-over.

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The Intergalactic Nemesis

“The year is 1933. Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Molly Sloan and her intrepid research assistant Timmy Mendez team up with a mysterious librarian from Flagstaff, Arizona, named Ben Wilcott. Together, they travel from Rumania to Scotland to the Alps to Tunis to the Robot Planet and finally to Imperial Zygon to defeat a terrible threat to the very future of humanity: an invading force of sludge-monsters from the planet Zygon!”

-The Intergalactic Nemesis: Target Earth

Last night my kids and I enjoyed a unique stage show called, The Intergalactic Nemesis. The show is the live performance of a graphic novel done in the style of an old science fiction melodrama. It’s a fantastic blend of performance where all the aspects of the show are on stage for everyone to see.

At one end of the stage they have a live pianist who improvises the score for every show. The center stage is dominated by the folly artist and her table, giving the audience a rare glimpse at the art of producing sound effects as part of the performance. Above her is a large screen on which they project panels taken straight from the graphic novel, which are controlled by a board operator who is also on stage. She also handles organ music. Finally there are the three voice actors, up front with their microphones, each actor deftly handling a total of about 30 characters.

The story is something straight from a pulp novel, where Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers would feel right at home. There is murder, intrigue, a mind controlling master villain, alien invaders, a square jawed heroic librarian, a fresh faced kid from Texas, and a woman reporter with enough moxie to impress Lois Lane.

There is also humor. Lots of humor. The story has tongue in cheek without drifting into outright satire. This is a love note to pulp fiction, not a parody, and the enthusiasm the cast projects is contagious. An infection they enhance by encouraging audience participation. The audience is encouraged to cheer the heroes, boo the villains, and gasp in shock.

My children had a tendency to cheer for the villains. This should surprise no one.

The Intergalactic Nemesis is the brainchild of Ray Golgan and Jason Neulander, who came up with the idea back in 1996. The project evolved many times over the years and the current incarnation has been touring the world since 2010. In addition to their stage performance they have three dramas available on CD and two in graphic novel format with the third book slated to be released soon.

My kids and I immensely enjoyed the performance and I recommend you catch the show if they show up in your area. Information about the show, tour dates, and copies of their merchandise can be found on their website, The Intergalactic Nemesis. They even have a YouTube channel where you can watch their performances!

It is a joy to see people with a love for the genre who have found such a unique way to share it with audiences and I hope their schedule will bring them back to our area in the future.

 
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Posted by on February 11, 2015 in Books and Comics, Reviews, Science Fiction

 

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