[WFB] List Maintenance: Lord Ruthven Restored

Because I’m a whocking great nerd, I keep a battlefield journal. Not exhaustive “and then I rolled a three and a two and he rolled a four and a six” level stuff because life is much too short, but a “no more than one A5 spread per thing” record of the games I’ve played and the army lists I’ve used (or considered using).

Despite my respect for the Stillmanic principle in some regards (I am still using the same army I started on my eighteenth birthday and have barely touched some of it with a paintbrush since), I’m an inveterate tinkerer and fine tuner and consider this a pleasure I shall not forgo just because ol’ Nigel doesn’t think it proper.

Here are the post mortem notes on the list I took to that London back in March, straight from the Book.

Rod of Flaming Death works – it worries people just enough that they always Dispel it.

Pretty clear there, past me. I used to look down on the Rod and not bother with it, now I understand that opponents don’t want to risk an automatic Panic test for having one model get fried. The Rod is one of those items which can subtly turn a game even if it never actually works – and, as a bonus, it doesn’t run out of juice!

Use the Stone early to draw out scrolls – don’t save it!

The more spells I can push through in the early game the more Dispel Scrolls I can dummy out, giving me more freedom to cast in the middling turns where it matters more. Necromancy spells turn the game by tipping combats in my favour and that makes them most impactful when the battle-lines are either about to hit or have just done so. The Stone also allows me to slam five dice down on a key spell from Rosenkratz the Necromancer, cutting through the three-dice casting cap he normally has to labour under. I find this sort of thing far more decisive than bringing a single Dispel Scroll and fretting about what’s important enough to use it on.

Swap in the Aura.

Aura of Dark Majesty has returned to must-take status now that I’ve started playing on 6′ x 4′ boards more. I’d hoped that I could wean myself off it and get used to a mere 12″ bubble but the stage of the game where my fast units need to turn around and get stuck back in really needs them to keep marching, and sometimes the tide of battle draws my Lord away from them in the horizontal plane.

Stick to a Wight Lord BSB for Leadership 9.

What it says on the tin. I love Vampire Thralls, don’t get me wrong: mine is a cheap source of fast-moving chariot-wrecking arrow-scoffing extra hits right where they’re needed, and I’ve gained a new respect for the Necrarch and Strigoi variants as I help out putting tactical together for the Online. But a Thrall does not take hits well, nor lead units, and the high Leadership is excellent for keeping a combat unit where it should be after my General bites it, or when pursuit needs to be deterred in favour of good positioning.

Skeleton spears. In both games they got charged and having spears paid off. I CURSE THE VULGAR FASHION!

For years and years I misplayed the hand weapon and shield rule in sixth edition and never understood why the hardcore said sword and board was better than spear. Now I finally have a unit of Skeleton Swordsmen and am using them with a vigour, so I think my past self wants talking to here. As I go forward I find myself bringing two Skeleton units: spearmen to take point and get charged, swordsmen to deliver a flanking hit. My Zombies are reserved for filling a spare Core slot with the most minimal of caster bunkers, or raising.

Consider a steady list with swappable Counts?

I worked out a range of similarly-coster Vampire Counts a while back and considered trading them in and out of the army to see what difference it made. The drawback to this plan? My aesthetic is very much a Von Carstein army: I can get away with a Lahmian or Blood Dragon as I have appropriate Generals on foot for that, but Strigoi or Necrarchs, the most different and powerful Bloodlines, are closed to me because the rest of the army doesn’t match. (If I ever did a second Vampire Counts army, it would be mostly Ghouls and more bronze age style Skeletons, deliberately geared toward playing with these two Bloodlines.)

What do you need: Wraith or Wight? Both games had the BSB pay off but also Terror made a big impact.

This is a recurring problem for me. Both these heroes have been excellent additions to my collection and I’m a tad flummoxed about which one to leave at home when slots are at a premium. Since the Wight Lord doesn’t have quite such an established character or set of kit (he was swapped into the army at the last moment) I’m going to stick with the Wraith for the time being.

Periapt ain’t always so hot: consider another Stone.

Don’t get me wrong, the Black Periapt is fine; it’s just a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul every other turn because this phase often has to get by on seven dice so I can have nine later, and there’s a level of cognitive load involved in planning around the dice-storage gimmick that can slow me down and stop me playing decisively. I’m still umming and ahhing about the Periapt, which I think is only essential in 2000 point games where a fella only has three level 2 wizards to play with. Up here I can probably get away without it by ensuring I have enough dice in the first place, and enough powerful wizards to make good use of them.

 

To these vestiges I’d add a few more observations that came out of the report-writing process. I really like Death Magic on my Vampires and am close to considering it the default as I go forward, outside the Army of Sylvania of course (there I don’t have the luxury of faffing about without Necromancy).

The big unit of Knights is a necessary evil in a Sylvanian list but otherwise I think I need the flexibility of two units operating on opposite flanks or sweeping one together.

Finally there’s the small matter of casting power. At present the 3000 point army is too dependent on the Master and once he’s copped it, I am knocked back to 2000 point levels of casting power: not good enough. This “Master and Margarita” list archetype is therefore reserved for fifth edition from here on out, and Lord Ruthven will be making a return to wrangle the army. I also plan to shout FIE to the high heavens, bust the shield off my Imperial Noble model, and simply use the figure who matches the army’s aesthetic as Lord Ruthven. If anyone gives me grief about his breastplate I shall say it’s got warpstone in it or something. Life’s too short.

A few additional cuts have been made in terms of magic banners, unit champions and so on and so forth. Magic banners may yet be restored to the Knight units at the cost of some Dire Wolves.

 

Lord Ruthven: Von Carstein Vampire Lord: extra magic level (Lore of Death), Biting Blade, Ring of the Night, Walking Death, Aura of Dark Majesty435 points

Walravius: Master Necromancer: extra magic level (Necromancy), Cloak of Mists and Shadows, Power Stone: 290 points

Rosenkratz: Necromancer: extra magic level (Necromancy), Book of Arkhan, Power Stone: 150 points

Guildenstern: Necromancer: extra magic level (Necromancy), Rod of Flaming Death: 150 points

Whispering Nell: Wraith: Cursed Book: 140 points

Lord Ruthven’s First of Foot: 20 Skeletons: spears, light armour, champion, musician and standard bearer: 245 points

Lord Ruthven’s Second of Foot: 20 Skeletons: light armour, champion, musician and standard bearer: 225 points

Templehof Pals: 10 Zombies: musician and standard bearer: 75 points

Verhungernhund Claw: 5 Dire Wolves: 50 points

Verhungernhund Fang: 5 Dire Wolves: 50 points

Order of the Black Cross: 8 Black Knights: barding, champion, musician and standard bearer: 240 points

Order of the Crimson Wing: 8 Black Knights: barding, champion, musician and standard bearer: 240 points

Black Monks of St. Herod: 5 Spirit Hosts: 325 points

Cora: Banshee: 90 points

Clarice: Banshee: 90 points

Emmanuelle’s Hearse: Black Coach: 200 points

TOTAL: 2995 points
Tower of Power: 13 dice
Pile of Denial: 8 dice

[WFB] Battle Report: Lord Ruthven’s Reanimation

3000 / 2000 points | Reclaim The Stones | Vampire Counts vs. Empire

My second engagement on the eve of Nineteen Crows was something equally eccentric, and this time I have slightly more adequate notes. Joseph Bain of tournament fame had suggested Reclaim the Stones, a scenario from the Albion campaign: always keen to skip out the Borehammer, I’d accepted his vulgar challenge. Although I was going in with 3000 points to his 2000 I would be doing so with a split-up Vampire Counts army (never a good idea) and Joseph had tricked out his list to give me a run for my money in the magic department.

He had:

Wizard Lord of the Celestial College: level 4 wizard (Lore of the Heavens: Second Sign of Amul, Storm of Kronos, Comet of Cassandora and… something else), Hex Staff
Warrior-Priest of Sigmar: heavy armour, shield, barded warhorse, Sword of Might, Van Horstman’s Speculum
Warrior-Priest of Sigmar: great weapon, Armour of Meteoric Iron
Master Engineer: repeater pistol

8 Knights of the Inner Circle: full cavalry kit, champion, musician, and standard bearer (War Banner)
10 Handgunners
10 Handgunners
5 Pistoliers: champion

18 Greatswords: champion, musician, and standard bearer (Griffon Standard)
Mortar
Great Cannon

Helblaster Volley Gun
Giant

I was rocking:

Margarita: Vampire Countess; level 2 wizard (Lore of Death: Dark Hand, Steal Soul, Doom and Darkness), Sword of Striking, Ring of the Night, Spell Familiar and Summon Wolves.
The Master: Master Necromancer: level 4 wizard (Necromancy: Invocation of Nehek, Hand of Dust, Gaze of Nagash, Vanhel’s Danse Macabre), Wristbands of Black Gold, Black Periapt
Rosenkratz: Necromancer: level 2 wizard (Necromancy: Invocation of Nehek, Vanhel’s Danse Macabre), Book of Arkhan, Power Stone
Guildenstern: Necromancer: level 2 wizard (Necromancy: Invocation of Nehek, Vanhel’s Danse Macabre), Rod of Flaming Death
Whispering Nell: Wraith: Cursed Book
Walravius: Wight Lord: Army Standard, Flayed Hauberk

Templehof Militia: 30 Skeletons with light armour, spears, champion, standard and musician
Templehof Levy: 25 Zombies with standard and musician
Hounds of Verhungern: 10 Dire Wolves with champion
The Local People: 10 Ghouls with champion

Drakenhof Templars: 12 Black Knights with barding, champion, standard (Banner of the Barrows) and musician
Black Monks of St. Herod: 5 Spirit Hosts

Cora: Banshee
Clarice: Banshee
Lord Ruthven’s Repose: Black Coach

The scenario forced me to split my army down the middle and with only one General to go around that made the choice of what to slap where pretty straightforward.

The A Team, consisting of everything that either can’t march (the Black Coach), can march regardless of proximity to the General (Ghouls), or is fast enough to reach combat even if it doesn’t march (Black Knights, Dire Wolves), plus the Master to give everything a bit of a Necromantic fillip. I wasn’t particularly optimistic about this flank’s chances but if they could corral Joseph’s army to an extent until the infantry showed up to win the game for me I’d be happy.

The B team, consisting of everything which needed proximity to the General (that’s Spirit Hosts, Skeletons and Zombies) plus everything that would want to hide in a Skeleton or Zombie unit (that’s all the characters except the Master). I also deployed the Banshees on this side on the grounds that they are supposed to stick close by the Battle Standard Bearer to help them survive the odd round of combat.

I was deeply worried about Joseph’s Greatsword unit led by the Warrior Priest as, even with closed lists, I had a reasonable idea what they’d be packing (it’s always the Griffon Standard, show me an Empire player who doesn’t). My plan with those was to pin them down with Spirits for as long as physically possible, while my Banshees whittled away at them and I dealt with the elements of Joseph’s army I felt I could kill, which was basically all the war machines and possibly the Knights if I got lucky.

It started well as I realised I could potentially tie up the Helblaster crew and the Greatswords with one charge, and had enough Vanhel’s Danses to pull it off. Sadly Joseph’s heap of Dispel dice for having all his casters within the Circle proved more than up to the challenge and I was left feeling a bit overexposed.

I did have a chance to turn things on their head very early as Joseph’s wizard had decided not to chill with the Greatswords and, as a unit all by himself, was an eligible target for Banshee screams. A Leadership 8 target. Sadly he managed to survive with one wound left and promptly buried himself in the Greatswords next turn, while their attendant Priest worked on restoring those Wounds (but at least he wasn’t casting Soulfire). My second Banshee didn’t have the range to finish the job but did manage to shoo Joseph’s Pistoliers straight off the board with their first Panic test of the day.

The fast flank started going to bits as soon as Joseph’s turn began: my Ghouls were vapourised by a Mortar shot and his Giant lumbered out to engage my Dire Wolves quick sharp, while Joseph’s Knights (“are they Inner Circle, mate?” “no, they’re in a line!”) marched up to point blank range of mine so their Priest could let rip with Soulfire. I didn’t manage to Dispel it and the odds between the units tipped rather dramatically as a whole five Black Knights went to the bad place in one go.

At the top of turn two, I would have to get spicy.

Fortunately, the Master was out of the Knights’ charge arc, and so I formulated a plan. My Knights would charge Joseph’s Knights and sink as many attacks as they could into the Warrior Priest (finishing him off with a Killing Blow as it happens). The Master would sneak around their flank and cast a Danse on the Black Coach, bringing it close to the circle; close enough that one of my three other Danses would surely go off and propel the overpriced paperweight into the middle of Joseph’s army. Even if it flubbed its charge it would hopefully last long enough to spread some tasty Terror around and knock off a few war machine crews…

The plan went off, although it took every single Power die I had, my Power Stone and the Book of Arkhan (ran out first time, as usual) to get the chain of Danses through. By the time the charges, tests, redirections and post-combat panickings were done, Joseph’s artillery crew were all dead or engaged (the Spirit Host having also ploughed in to do its job on the Helblaster), half his Handgunners had been run down and the others were fleeing, and I’d even discovered that the Banshees can scream freely into a combat they are not personally engaged in (although if they are personally engaged, they have to scream at what they’re fighting).

The only fly in my ointment was that loose Giant roaming around the back of my fast flank. I hate Giants. I hate them so much. There’s no way of predicting what they’ll do, but their Stubbornness plus Terror-causing tendencies plus the heinous “automatically win by two” Yell and Bawl habit means it generally amounts to “not bloody go anywhere whilst being too tough to shift.” In theory a good Hand of Dust will sort them out but somehow I never quite want to risk a Necromancer in picking fights with them.

Joseph renewed hostilities by bringing down a Comet of Cassandora into the big combat in the centre. Once the dust from that had settled, one of my Banshees was wounded, half my Spirit Host were frazzled, and a whole rank of his own Greatswords had also gone to meet Morr in the great beyond. Storm of Cronos took yet more wounds off the ghosts, but not enough to open my charge lane.

I forget who charged who here: I think it must have been Joseph going for me, after I moved my Necromancers into the stone circle to take advantage of those extra dice for myself, and I know for a fact I wheeled the Coach around to get away from the Giant as best it could. I would surely have charged my Skeletons into what was left of those Greatswords if I could, so I’m forced to assume the Spirit Host died on my turn somehow after blocking my lane for the duration?

In any case, the combats went as well as might be expected. Depleted Knights couldn’t finish off many Zombies, what remained of the Greatswords didn’t have the mustard to fight off a Vampire Countess (who overran into the Master Engineer before he got any ideas about priming the Helblaster for one last volley) and the Giant didn’t quite finish off my Black Coach but undoubtedly would have done given another turn. Joseph had managed to call down another Comet of Cassandora before his Wizard Lord bought it, but sadly it didn’t land before the game formally ended. Sad face.

A Vampire Countess, Battle Standard Bearer, two Necromancers and two Banshees within the Circle is more than enough to overcome the opposition of some leaderless Knights and the dead weight of those Zombies: plenty of points, enough for a Victory to the Vampire Counts!

Hots and Nots

Warrior Priests are softer than I remember them being. I think I fixate too much on the damage potential of Soulfire and overlook that they’re really not that much harder than a regular Wizard. The Banshees remain excellent and become more so the more I become familiar with their targeting rules; there are all sorts of cheeky things they can do through not being a conventional shooting attack. This time, the Lore of Death was a mixed bag: I didn’t regret taking it but I do think Steal Soul is a spell you need to cast every turn or kind of forget about even trying (although it’s hard to calculate magical potential in a scenario as asymmetric as this one).

Necromancy continues to have an embarrassingly short range – even the 24″ is not that far when your caster is on foot and the board is six feet across, and the really important spells cap out at 18″. Also, as I predicted, the split deployment was a mare. Vampire Counts really need to stick together in a clump around the General and everything I left out on the other flank, including the Master, was basically a goner. The Coach only made it through because I had enough Danses to save the damn thing and while it did actually get to grow its scythes in this game, it only killed useless chaffy Handgunners and war machine crew it would normally (probably) never have got near. I’m still not convinced.

One thing I’ll add in conclusion is that this game really hammered home how great the sixth edition magic system is, as long as nobody’s boring and brings four Dispel Scrolls and decides to try and take it out of the match altogether. The dice fencing aspect brought a lot of laughs, especially with the sheer number of dice Joseph’s army was generating within the circle, and yet my superior starting pool kept me in the running right the way through. An unusual game against a heavily tailored list, but one of the most fun I’ve had since this whole sixth edition revival thing really got going. Kudos to Joseph for being such a sport about it all.

Next up: teardown and rebuild of the Vampire Counts list, then it’s back to homebrew: Bloodspell Extended Edition is coming along nicely and I intend to have developer’s notes ready alongside the book itself for a December launch. Be seeing you!

[WFB] Battle Report: A Wrong Turn on the Road to Zavastra

3000 points | Breakthrough | Vampire Counts vs. Kislev

Just before all this malarkey with Nineteen Crows kicked into high gear, I was in London. The London Book Fair had been cancelled but I was there anyway, and had a spare day to play some socially-distanced no-handshakes Warhammer at the new Dark Sphere ‘megastore’ in Shepherd’s Bush. Also risking life and limb for some last jollity before the end were Niklaus Meurke (known for The Old World Lives podcast) and Joseph Bain (known for organising a bunch of London and Midlands sixth ed meetups while we in the West and Wales have sat on our asses since EGG).

We agreed on 3000 points and no Pitched Battles. I took a lot of photos but not a lot of notes (something has to suffer if I’m to concentrate on actually playing the game) and it’s now been long enough that I don’t remember enough for a blow by blow recap.

First up for the motley was Niklaus, with something pretty unusual.

Deployment: KISLEV.

Niklaus brought the Tzarina Katarina, a unit of Kossars with a Boyar, three units of Winged Lancers with Boyars, three units of Ungol Horse Archers (one quite large), the Gryphon Legion (packing War Banner) and Bronzino’s Galloper Guns. I no longer recall which Boyars had which kit (one definitely had an Enchanted Shield) or exactly what the Kislev spells are called (but Katarina had a breath weapon, a wall effect, a self-enhancement that made her fly and improved her combat stats, and a basic magic missile).

Deployment: Sylvania..

I would be using the same list for both games: fortunately, I have written that down at least.

Margarita: Vampire Countess; level 2 wizard (Lore of Death: Dark Hand, Death Dealer, Doom and Darkness), Sword of Striking, Ring of the Night, Spell Familiar and Summon Wolves.
The Master: Master Necromancer: level 4 wizard (Necromancy: Invocation of Nehek, Hellish Vigour, Gaze of Nagash, Curse of Years), Wristbands of Black Gold, Black Periapt
Rosenkratz: Necromancer: level 2 wizard (Necromancy: Invocation of Nehek, Curse of Years), Book of Arkhan, Power Stone
Guildenstern: Necromancer: level 2 wizard (Necromancy: Invocation of Nehek, Vanhel’s Danse Macabre), Rod of Flaming Death
Whispering Nell: Wraith: Cursed Book
Walravius: Wight Lord: Army Standard, Flayed Hauberk

Templehof Militia: 30 Skeletons with light armour, spears, champion, standard and musician
Templehof Levy: 25 Zombies with standard and musician
Hounds of Verhungern: 10 Dire Wolves with champion
The Local People: 10 Ghouls with champion

Drakenhof Templars: 12 Black Knights with barding, champion, standard (Banner of the Barrows) and musician
Black Monks of St. Herod: 5 Spirit Hosts

Cora: Banshee
Clarice: Banshee
Lord Ruthven’s Repose: Black Coach

Opening gambits! As you can see, Niklaus didn’t go hell for leather or anything, opting for a sedate advance that kept his options (and his cannons’ fire lanes) open. For my part I raised a nice big blob of Zombies in the path of the central Lancers, shoved my Banshees up to begin the business of screaming a few rank bonuses away and standing in charge lanes, and made my usual ponderous forays forward. Sadly I made one quite major boo-boo with my early movement! The Spirit Host didn’t quite have the pace to get through that house in front of them, we didn’t think a Unit Strength 15 swarm should be able to pile into a small cottage, so I had to wheel them around it instead and leave a flank pointing at the Gryphon Legion, who took full advantage (as one might expect). Although they didn’t have a magic weapon to their name they did have a rank, a flank, a standard, a War Banner and superior Unit Strength, ensuring they’d win the round by at least two. Just to vex me even further, the Spirits’ formation wouldn’t allow me to move any extra models into combat and out of the Knights’ way, as there were no rear ranks for the models to be moved from!

I would have to do something decisive, and so I did something decisive. Here’s what the board looked like when I was done pushing my luck.

 

Predictably, the Black Coach had eaten a cannonball despite my best efforts, and Niklaus had swept away its attendant Ghouls with a Lancer charge and gone careening on into the Master, who was suddenly regretting being so stingy with his defence budget. “I don’t need the Cloak of Mists and Shadows,” I’d said, “he’ll never end up in combat anyway”.

In the centre, I’d been more successful. I Summoned some Wolves to threaten Niklaus’ cannons. He was forced to overinvest somewhat in destroying them, with two Horse Archer units and Bronzino himself turning around to finish off three mouldy lupines. I also pressed forward with my Wraith: she abandoned her post and joined up with the Zombies I’d just raised instead, preparing to deter the Lancers’ charge. BUT…

Her proximity to the Kislveite lines meant a number of Terror tests had to be taken. Niklaus passed most of them, except the test for the Gryphon Legion, who suddenly turned and pelted it out of combat! Suddenly, his left flank was looking a lot less secure, with the Black Knights and Spirits poised to charge across each other and potentially mess up two of his large Lancer blocks in one go…

Sadly, the Black Knights didn’t quite make it, but the Spirits chased down the fleeing Gryphon Legion, while on my other flank, Margarita and her associates absolutely flattened Niklaus’ Kossars in combat. I wasn’t terribly worried about the Knights having to eat a charge from Winged Lancers: with Toughness 4 and a 2+ save they were better equipped to laugh it off than most of my troops! The Master had also managed to hold out, somehow, and was still lending his formidable bucket o’ dice to my spellcasting efforts. This will become significant shortly.

 

What you see here is the impact of a successfully cast Doom and Darkness on the Tzarina and her big unit of Horse Archers, followed up by a double-six Banshee scream right into them. The Tzarina was left on one wound, although her “turn me into a frosty phoenix” spell ensured she made short work of Clarice in the fightin’ phase.

A “top of the midgame to ya” kind of image. My wall o’ summoned Zombies were now long gone, but a new block had joined them to protect the flank of the Skeleton unit and deter those surviving Lancers from trying anything.

After beating back the Lancers’ charge for a modest four casualties, my Knights (and Spirits) were now hopelessly out of position. Unable to march, they played no further part in the hostilities, while Niklaus’ Horse Archers finished off my Dire Wolves.

Not wanting to risk a rear charge from the Horse Archers on my Skeletons, I opted to try and block their lanes with the Wight Lord, whose 1+ save was enough to eat their attacks and, thanks to his Battle Standard, not that fussed about being outnumbered either. If the Tzarina tried anything he was done for but that would leave her in range of all my magic missiles.

Finally freed of Zombies, the central Lancer unit ploughed on into my Necromancers’ bunker, while the rest of Niklaus’ units ran hell for leather into my deployment zone, trying to salvage as many warm bodies (and necessary points total Broken Through) as they could.

The Tzarina elected to try something quite bold at this point, moving in to try and pin the Zombies down and save her cavalry. Sadly, even her frosty fun bird spell and breath weapon (dispelled) didn’t avail her and she ended up fleeing back into the tightening noose of Undead infantry, leaving a ragged handful of survivors to trickle past as the Zombies focused their attentions on her, the greater prize. The middle block of Lancers legged it too: Niklaus just couldn’t catch a break.

Victory to the Vampire Counts!

To Niklaus’ credit this was going to be a hard one for him to win on the victory condition. His individual units were so cheap and comparatively fragile that he’d struggle to get 1000 points’ worth through my lines unscathed without detouring at least one Lancer block around me, and with this much stuff on this size table there wasn’t really room for him to do that. My conservative approach to Vampire Generals meant he wasn’t likely to get the sudden death win from killing Margarita and polishing off crumbling units, either. In the early turns my poor movement and his speed advantage might have freed up some space for him, but that fortunate Terror test brought the game back to me.

[Meta Gaming] Of Free Kriegspiel Roleplaying

Brought to you by a reflection on the Revenant’s Quill.

I sometimes feel very out of synch with the world, and the rest of the time I am asleep.

Half a lifetime ago, when D&D 3.0 was young and rules were in the ascension, I was running WFRP by throwing out everything but percentage odds based on character stats, and Victorian Age Vampire (a good half inch of book with two pages of actual rules in) on a single die hack.

When the OSR rolled around I was saying “yes yes, but people seem to like consistency in their fiction, so let us cleave a little closer to the rules”, a tendency which reached its height with the declaration that Fluff Ain’t Rules and what does not exist in system is not true.

But let’s look at the games I make, hmm? They are all, ultimately, a single activity to prompt and shape emergent fiction. Draw and arrange cards, or roll dice in particular combinations, to decide what happens: then tell us about it. (Or they are Bloodspell, which is as ever weird and ass-backwards: decide what you want to happen, then roll dice to see if you betray your own intent.)

In these circumstances there is no Referee, except in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to Elfland, as a legacy gesture to people who want there to be someone whose job it is to say “you succeed” or “you fail”.

There is a Host. An originating player who had the idea for the game, who brings the others together and welcomes them into their mind for a while. Those others need a spur to want things – sheer curiosity about the world does it sometimes, but sometimes people need a drive that compels them into the world, something which comes from the fiction but has mechanical teeth behind to lead into that “core gameplay loop.”

You know the one. To rise in society you need to gain levels; you gain levels by spending currency; you gaim currency from your adventures. Or: you awaken each night with a rising Hunger that must be quieted, whether you wish it or not, and the longer you leave it the lese control you will have.

And sometimes people sit there and say “well, what am I allowed to do?” – and my first instinctive answer was to highlight things in the fictive world with which they can interact, but at some point the journey brought me to a doorway beyond which were Moves, and Plays, and specific things you were allowed to do as your means of interacting with world.

I know why. I’ve heard the stories of players traumatised by bad hosts who don’t care if they’re having a good time. I’ve been numbed by the finite possibilities of a prepared and purchased experience. Those things lead to a refuge in rules as protection and aid.

Yet now: people are talking about playing the way I used to play. Which is, in the terms of the indie circles I now inhabit, rather old-fashioned. We are supposed to attack and dethrone the Master, and invite full co-operation in the play according to the intent of the absent designer.

Whisper it, but that ain’t how I roll, and it never has been. Designer Whomst? I get tired when I have to act as the spur to inert players, or when the calculation of fairness becomes too heavy, and those elements of Mastery I shun out of pure distaste. But as a foil to active players? Even if it makes me an authority, a monster in indie terms: how could I ever, ever tire of that?

Absolutely years and years ago I wrote a semi-sensate drunken ramble about how great my last Mage session had been, and it was run in exactly that spirit. I don’t think that post is still extant, but it was basically an excuse to quote this:

Sitting behind the screen, my notes heaped high with treasure for the virtuous few, it became clear that what I actually liked was telling stories in more or less real time: snaring bits of player conversation in order to make them flesh, confounding people, embroidering every act in an effort to simulate their worthy band at the highest possible resolution.

I’d been so terrified of the responsibility for another person’s enjoyment that I’d forgotten what happens when it works: you are inviting other people to inhabit your mind. What a strange use of oneself that is; strange, and rare.

Tycho: problematique, but he can’t half write.

What scares me, deters me, bars me, is a standing down from the sense of myself as designing something other people can run, of presenting a Game first and foremost. How long did Tekumel exist before it could be published and consumed? EXACTLY. That is what I need to remember.

Anyway, FKR feels like coming home.

[Game Dev] On Getting Knocked Down, and Getting Up Again

This post is brought to you by two things.

The first is the ongoing drip-drip-drip of “where are the rules for X in V5”, where X is dual-wielding or grappling or exactly how many Arms of Ahriman you can summon in a turn – granular, realism-concerned, justice-model stuff that V5 as a system doesn’t care about and (I thought) was pretty explicit about not caring about. But I guess gamers gonna game, and bring their assumptions about what a game needs with them.

The second is Olivia Hill being, as per, annoyingly smart and insightful about vocabulary. 

I am pretty hardline on having a clear, readable-at-a-glance indication of how a systemic element works – a flowchart, a boxout, an IF-AND-THEN sort of statement with very clear operators/decision points – because when I’m in the middle of playing I don’t want to allocate cognitive effort to parsing rules text. Gotta see it, it’s gotta make sense, I’ve gotta make the call. So I do like a pure-crunch summary of how something works.

But I also like and grok what Olivia is on about. The vocabulary a game uses states what it’s about, and that statement needs to carry forward into how it works. A separation between the authorial claim and the played experience is a failure of design. And that got me thinking. How would I write and describe some simple bits of RPG system, and what would that say about how the system worked and what it was for and what it was about?

So I’ve had a go at some atomic stuff – time measurement and conflict resolution. It was going to go into Bloodspell, but that ended up being a game that didn’t need conflict resolution of this sort (it’s much less about What Happens than it is How You Feel About It And Why It Happened That Way).

What do these systems say about what kind of game this might be?

TIME

Time is measured like this.

You have the Moment – that’s what’s happening right now. You live in the Moment. Life is a series of Moments. You can be given a Moment, you can take a Moment, you can have a Moment.

Then you have the Sesh. It’s what’s happening to you and your characters today. You’re playing this game, and something decisive should happen while you’re doing it so that your characters accomplish something while you’re playing.

Then you have the Mish. It’s what your characters are currently working toward; the long-term point of things. A Mish usually takes more than one Sesh to sort out. Think about organising a game: that’s a Mish. It takes a Sesh of planning and prepping, a Sesh (or at least a Moment) of furious instant messaging while you try to work out what day everyone’s free, and then a Sesh of actually playing.

AGGRO

Aggro can mean physical combat, intellectual debate, social strife – it’s anything where someone’s acting directly in opposition to someone else. Aggro is always a Moment in its own right.

Aggro is all about Knocks. You take your Knocks and you either keep going or you don’t. 

Take one Knock? That’s fine. You can keep going. You can come back from that.

Take two Knocks? That’s a problem. You’re Down. Whatever you’re trying to do will be harder, because you’re on a loser here.

Take three Knocks? That’s it. You’re Out. Out of action, out of commission, out of play until the Moment of Aggro is over.

WHAT TO DO IF YOU’RE DOWN

You’ve two choices.

Powering Through: If you Power Through, you can ignore the difficulty that comes from being Down. You’ll still be Out if you take another Knock, but you’re doing your best to look and act un-Knockable, and it might work.  BUT: Powering Through takes a lot out of you. You’re borrowing from tomorrow to handle today. If you Power Through a Moment of Aggro, you’ll start your next Moment of Aggro with one Knock to your name already. You can Power Through that one too, but the cost stacks, and you’ll enter your next Moment of Aggro already Down. Power Through that one, and you’re automatically Out next time a Moment of Aggro comes your way.

Calling For Backup: If you Call For Backup, you ask another player to take your Knock instead of you, and they can say yes or no. And you can keep on Calling For Backup, but they can always say no – especially if they’re already Down from taking your Knocks for you. If you Call For Backup too often, you might find all your mates are Out – or just not interested in dealing with your Aggro any more.

GETTING UP AGAIN

If you’re Down, you get back up again once the Moment of Aggro is over. It’s only temporary.

If you’re Out, you’ll need a bit more time. You start your next Moment of Aggro with two Knocks – so you’re already Down, and one Knock from going Out again – and you can’t Power Through that Moment either. If you make it through that Moment of Aggro, you start your next Moment with one Knock. If you make it through that one, you’re fine again.