[Off Topic] “Oh, all right. One more lifetime won’t kill anyone…”

It’s been a hell of a year.

I don’t just mean 2020, although it absolutely has been. Leaving aside Nineteen Crows and the return to form of Perfidious Albion, there have been troubles closer to home.

I didn’t let on when I was making the final posts of what I swore would be the final year, but I’d just had to pack in my writing gigs after a year of freefalling income and declining health. I’d also run into an expensive (life-shatteringly so) bureaucratic cock-up at the same time. It was all getting a bit rough and for a while I thought I’d be spending Christmas 2019 on the streets.

Instead, by lucky hap, I took a job in a bookshop and put my PhD on hold while I learned the ropes. And after three months, the town it’s in flooded and we became ground zero for cleanup and care. And THEN, while I was on what was going to be a week’s holiday in London, Nineteen Crows happened. I nearly ended up living in E and K’s spare room again, and when I came home I spent four months playing an Amount of Total Warhammer 2, making my peace with V:tM’s fifth edition by trying to run a couple of chronicles, and…

I also made a bunch of mini-RPGs. Having tried to crack the mid-tier RPG industry and realised what a crock it is, I fell in with the rabble-rousers and went indie. Most of them are system tests – attempts to make one or two mechanics work as isolated indie games about THIS or THAT. One is a hack I made because I was so very, very pissed off with Vampire: the Masquerade after a year doing research on it and saw a way to make Wolfspell into something that scratched the same itch and put some feelings to rest.

I actually quite like making games, it turns out, and the next one is – well, I’ve made a single to hear myself on the radio, and a couple more followed, and I’ve done a weird EP of cover versions, and the NEXT thing is going to be the debut album, as it were. Figuratively speaking.

There’s some other business. I tried Classic World of Warcraft and it was the push I needed to quit altogether. I tried to stream again, but that kind of workmanlike #content creation has never really been my scene. I ended up in charge of matters pertaining to board games at work: we are, step by step, figuring out how to turn a successful monthly club into a community and a customer base.

And, as the year turned and I had a bit of mad money even in the midst of furlough, I found myself turning back to Warhammer like an old, old friend. Half-assed collections of Chaos Dwarfs (event swag/trades) and Tomb Kings (a side project that took on appeal) have been rounded out with new third party figures. My new gaff is smaller, but located such that playing games is less of a giant fiddle to pull off. Which of course made me think about the website.

I thought – well, why not?

I have quite a bit to say. About what I’m playing, what I’m making, what I’m studying. Expect occasional dalliances with Warhammer, still, but also developer’s notes on the games I make, and an attempt to kick my PhD back into life by blogging my way through my research. It’s like the old GAME OVER days, but I’m not ripping off Andrew Eldritch’s branding. Much.

[WFB] Exegesis of Terrible Fiction: Vampire Wars, Steven Savile, Black Library (2008)

(The title is for Huge Ruined Scott. Consider this your content warning, dude.)

This post can be blamed on all the Mordheim: City of the Damned and Warhammer Total War I’ve been playing of late. The experience has confirmed that despite my recent less-than-entirely-negative reaction to Age of Sigmar, my deep-seated love for the ‘Forces of Death’ is rooted in the Old World, the cast of characters created or lovingly plagiarised to populate it, and the fine tradition of homage it established. (Even Kemmler, despite my previous storm-in-a-teacup peak-fake-woke-white-boi social-justice-necromancer ranting on the topic. Terror of the Lichemaster is a decent little railroad and whoever voice acted the old goon for Total War nailed it.)

Anyway, I’ve been spending some time in the Old World and it’s made me thirsty for trashy tie-in fiction that I’ve not read twenty times already.

Continue reading “[WFB] Exegesis of Terrible Fiction: Vampire Wars, Steven Savile, Black Library (2008)”

[Meta Gaming] Theory Thursday – "Does This List make me That Guy?"

Questions like these come up on Reddit at least three times a week, and those are just the ones I see. “{insert popular tournament list archetype here} – does bringing this make me That Guy?”

No.

Not in a vacuum, anyway.

I don’t care what it is. The latest Internet-approved tri-Riptide donkeyflop laswing with a Seer Council, dual Knights and go-faster stripes on the infinitely respawning Daemon Allies doesn’t make you That Guy in and of itself.

What does?

Powergaming alone

If you’re rocking up with that list and nobody knows it’s coming, you’re probably That Guy. If you’re putting it down on the table and someone takes out their motley collection of metal Guard figures from the 1990s which are barely even a proper army, if you squint and overlook the one missing platoon command squad, you’re definitely That Guy.

If you know for an absolute fact that anyone you might be playing that list against on this day, in this place, will be prepared for it and have something of comparable heft on their side, you are not That Guy. Congratulations.

If you have taken the time to find an opponent and arrange a game before you even write your lists, as God and the Studio intend, you are not That Guy. Not… yet. The thing is, being That Guy is a lot like actually winning games – it’s a lot less to do with list building than you think it is.

Being a helmet

Sadly, there is no defined and qualified list of helmetic behaviours. It sucks. I know. I’m autistic. I’d like there to be a list somewhere. There isn’t. I’m going to take a stab at it, but at least one of these is something that might only be a hot button for me. Bear that in mind.

  • Gamesmanship. Undermining your opponent either more directly (they hand you their list, you glance at it, stifle a snort and hand it back) or less (every time they get their game face on to make a decision, you ask them a well-timed question about something another of their units does). The outcome of a toy soldiers game is not worth playing mindgames on another human being. (Incidentally, I apologise for all the times I’ve pulled this one. I’ve been That Guy.)
  • Slow play/fast play. Playing noticeably slower than your opponent – stalling for time, especially in timed game environments, hoping to get the alpha strike and the last turn – is very bad form indeed. Playing faster than your opponent can follow – scooping up dice before they’ve registered the results, declaring your intent in a series of barked shorthands or worse, not at all, never stopping for anything that might be negotiable, hustling them to take decisions like whether or not to Deny the Witch? That’s also bad form.
  • Looking with your fingers, not with your eyes. Maybe this is more of a pet peeve, but I hate people touching my models even with permission. If break it, that’s on me and I’m allowed to be cross. If you break it I’m expected to eat that anger for the sake of the social contract and that doesn’t tickle me at all. This goes double for insolently flicking my dudes over when they die. (Nobody has ever actually done this to me, but I break out in a cold sweat thinking about it.) I gather that some scenes, like competitive Blood Bowl, are a lot more chill about this, and all I can say is that don’t fly with me. Unless I ask you to touch my stuff, don’t. Assume everyone is as uptight about this as I am.
  • “Gotcha!” There was a time when wargames were closed-information affairs: the exact nature of your list was a secret because there existed rules for scrying, scanning and so on. No more. Lists are open. Rules are open. Withholding key information until someone’s made a decision and then being all “no takebacks bro” is a sure sign that you are That Guy. That said…
  • Constantly reminding your opponents about a rule verges on being That Guy too, especially if it’s something like Stealth in Warmachine, where people often know  the shot will auto-miss but are hoping to catch something with the blast. This one is more forgiveable than the others – some people struggle to retain some rules, some people do pretend this state for advantage, and in general I would consider it good form to declare intent, issue reminders and narrate things like blast deviations, even if it does make you sound like a dice-rolling app on legs. This one is more about reading your opponent – if they seem heated, maybe don’t poke that inner fire too hard. Try asking questions rather than making statements – “you do know she has Stealth, right?” before the shot is taken is a bit less enraging than “Stealth” right afterwards.
  • Taking your eyes off the prize. Yeah, yeah, gaming is a social activity, I get that – but gaming is also gaming. If you’re more interested in the game on the next table over, whatever you watched on Netflix last night, the cute game store girl or telling me about your eighteenth level Paladin, you’re being a bit of a helmet. Maybe a skullcap or something. If you came out to play a game, play the game.
  • Hard tilt. This one is hard to cop to because it is my major sin of choice, but for the sake of honour and completeness it must remain. If you are still mildly traumatised from the unspeakable things that were done to your dudes in the last game, you need to recover before you hit the next one. If your single point of failure has been reached and you’ve already totally blown this game at the top of turn two, you’re either playing badly or being melodramatic, and in either case you need to breathe and think and ideally come back at this another day. I’m really bad at this, which is why I don’t play tournaments any more – the tension from the first game shorts my brain out and I totally forget how to handle myself in the next.
  • The Discourse. Off-colour jokes don’t fly when your opponent isn’t laughing and is squirming. There’s a time and a place for everything, even the dead baby jokes, but come on – read your opponent. If they don’t laugh, dial it back a notch and save everyone a boring argument. Likewise: tone policing. I get it; you don’t want to hear the word ‘rape’ five times in one sentence while playing toy soldier games. Doesn’t thrill me either. The thing is, when people are in mid game they aren’t always watching their every thought and word for every possible BadWrong they might say, and they aren’t going to be receptive to a hot button conversation right that minute. Distract, derail, move them along with the game, and unleash the Discourse afterwards, in controlled conditions. There’s a time and a place for everything.

The bottom line

Your list doesn’t make you That Guy. That Guy is someone you are, independently of the game mechanics. Failure to read your opponents, share desired outcomes in play, and uphold the social contracts: these are the hallmarks of That Guy. We are all That Guy sometimes, when our concentration lapses and our ill side gets the best of us, irrespective of what’s in our figure case today. It’s not what you play. It’s how you play it.

[Event Report] ArmadaCon 28 – Home Town Heroism, procedural megadungeons, and gross capitalism

They say that wizards can never go home.

Fortunately, as a card-carrying storygamer Swine I reject the shackles of class-based character generation, and can go where I damn well please, so I went back to Plymouth to attend ArmadaCon’s twenty-eighth instalment and do a spot of mega-dungeoning.

M’colleagues on the board have spent some time beefing up the gaming side of the convention, and politely asked if I wouldn’t mind hosting ‘something’ in the games-and-dealers room for the three-day weekend. Obviously my first idea was a through-the-ages Vampire chronicle (Dark Ages on day one, Victorian Age on day two, Final Nights on day three), but then m’colleagues pointed out that they had no idea how many gamers would be turning up, also that gamers buy day tickets rather than signing up for the whole weekend, and that putting an awful lot of work into something might leave me sitting around weeping into my Cappadocian clanbook. (I bought a copy of the first edition – which is actually for the game’s second edition – on the Sunday. It sits next to the Giovanni one on my shelf, feeling awkward about the future.)

Instead, I fished out my Tarot cards, Otherworld adventurer models, A1 sheets of graph paper and a motley assortment of monsters (mostly undead, a few North Star gnolls, and some Fireforge historicals to use as hierlings) and prepared to play some Fuckin’ D&D.

What this means in real money is that I had ten set-piece encounters and twelve PCs statted out, but the routes from set-piece to set-piece would be determined by Tarot flips, as would treasure and traps. Players could drop in and out, taking over existing characters or having a new one turn up trapped under a rock fall or something, and I would be quite chipper about killing PCs off since it’s a con game and that shit don’t matter. There was a story – something, something, expedition, something something vast tomb complex below a suspiciously Cappadocian hillside, something something midnight howls, panicking henchmen, people falling down wells and crevasses – but I wasn’t going to make a big deal of it. Mostly, the story was there to get people into play and justify the random appearances and disappearances of new characters.

Although I didn’t actually get to start until after lunchtime on both days (the sessions were down for a 10 a/m kickoff, but most of the folks in the hotel were there for the panels and regular fixtures, not for the games), I did end up running on both days (not originally in the playbook). Play was slow (they did eventually fill one A1 sheet with mapped tunnels) but entertaining, especially on the Sunday when a critical mass of about six players was achieved throughout the proceedings.

Final scores: 8/12 PCs dead, 2/12 PCs resurrected thanks to The Shop On The Borderlands‘ sponsored wandering wizard encounter, 4/12 PCs returned to surface via wishing well, 3/10 set piece encounters actually used, 3/10 sheets of graph paper covered in horrible scrawls, 3 requests to keep going regardless of time and only 1 player feeling it wasn’t his cup of tea.

That’s not bad. Next time I’ll tie it into the charitable causes side of the event and allow PCs to buy themselves back from the dead by bunging a few quid to St. Luke’s Hospice, which I wish I’d thought of at the start of the weekend rather than ten minutes after the doors closed on Sunday.

Currently playing…

It was World of Warcraft, for about a month. Legion isn’t rubbish. The new Demon Hunter class is suitably entertaining. Gold is easy enough to come by that I haven’t actually had to pay for the second month at all (the subscription was wrangled with an in-game token). As we move into the first patch the novelty is beginning to wear off and I am no longer spending six hours at a time “catatonically staring at a monitor” as one wacky bastard of a commentator has it.

At the present moment in time it’s Blood Bowl (PC version), because a new edition of Blood Bowl (tabletop version) is out just in time for my birthday and there’s talk of a Corehammer tournament early in the new year. Sadly my beloved Necromantic team hasn’t made the cut for the first batch of re-releases, but the Nurgle louts have, so I’m currently learning why Disturbing Presence is hilarious and why nobody needs two Beastmen with Leader. Assuming the Nurgle lads get some new models, I’ll finally make good on that insistent Nurgly itch I’ve have for a couple of years now, without doing something stupid like a whole new 40K army.

I have vague itches towards the World of Darkness and will probably muster the Dark Ages group for another one-off or two shortly after Christmas. These episodic ‘tales from Constantinople’ take a bit of adjusting-to, since I’m used to running an ongoing weekly or fortnightly campaign and can afford to have loose ends dangling between sessions. When it might be months between times, events must be more contained and discrete, and I’m still learning how to pace them and make them feel important while still maintaining the proper quotients of vampirism and player agency.

I also have vague itches towards Warhammer. No, not Age of Sigmar, stop that, back that truck right up. I mean Sixth Edition, the Silver Age of Warhammer, the one I and m’colleagues actually enjoyed playing. More on this as details emerge – at the moment it’s taking the form of “actually acquiring a Black Coach and redoing the movement trays and finishing the display army like I said I would two years ago.” Actual gameplay is being negotiated with the learnéd Dr. Shiny and something may occur in that vein before the year is out.

Currently reading…

The odd couple of Eddisons I hadn’t finished. Styrbiorn is excellent – austere and restrained in a way quite distinct from the lavish prose of his Zimiamvia novels. His extended obituary to one Philip Sidney Nairn, which I read purely for completism’s sake, is quietly moving and offers a glimpse of the late Empire and the standards for being a decent chap therein, but is of little direct consequence. I also started Diary of a Drug Fiend, which is a delightfully rambling little confessional but not hugely compelling, which is why it’s only ‘started’.

Currently hobbying…

You wish. The learned Dr. Shiny will be carrying out much of my miniature painting in the future, in return for the free practice of my trade upon the manuscript for his novel. I hate painting, Shiny’s good at it, I like editing and Shiny needs some done. You see how this works?

[Meta Gaming] A Moment of Sanity

Apparently this appeared in the New York Times the other day.
 

Judge John Hodgman on the Quest of Dungeon Master Dad

Paul writes: “I have a dispute with my son’s friend’s parents. They feel that Dungeons & Dragons is inappropriate for 5-year-olds. I think the imaginative play is good for our boys, but the other parents believe that the game will make their child an outcast. Help these parents see reason and allow their child to play a game of D&D.”

The court agrees that your neighbors are terrible snobs. I suspect, however, that playing D.&D. with your son is more your fantasy than his. Five-year-olds don’t need a lot of hex paper and dice to imagine that they are warriors or elves (or cyborg mermen with rainbow breath): They’re built for it. It is the adolescent who craves D.&D., as it offers the illusion that all of his increasingly terrifying interactions in real life are governed by a secret math that, while occasionally cruel as a vorpal blade, is at least comprehensible. Your moment as dungeon master will come, Dad, but for now I order you to simply let the children play.

I’m not dead. I’m just playing WoW again. I’m also designing a dungeon crawl for this year’s ArmadaCon. Well, I say ‘designing’, it’s more ‘flipping tarot cards and working out how many undead miniatures I can fit in my luggage’…

[Off Topic] Recommendations, inter alia

[30/08/2016 21:01:07] Von: (I am currently Low on Cash and do not need to be thinking about Chaos Space Marines)
[30/08/2016 21:01:27] Von: (hell I don’t even know how to plan and manage a 40K army any more, what with all these Formations and Allies and shit)
[30/08/2016 21:01:54] Prince Charles: YOU DO NOT NEED MORE CHOAS MARINES
[30/08/2016 21:03:12] Von: YOU ARE QUITE CORRECT IN THIS
[30/08/2016 21:03:26] Prince Charles: VON
[30/08/2016 21:03:30] Prince Charles: YOU HAVE PLENTY OF SHIT
[30/08/2016 21:03:42] Prince Charles: PRIORITISE
[30/08/2016 21:03:49] Von: I KNOW RIGHT
[30/08/2016 21:03:54] Von: PRIORITIES ARE A THING
[30/08/2016 21:04:08] Von: that fucking Mammoth is sitting there waiting for me to Google ‘elephant toenails’

I don’t know where this whiff of interest in the Grimdark has come from again. Must be the Stars aligning or summat: I was in the right mood to reread the Night Lords Omnibus, replay a bit of Dawn of War II, and idly look at the Start Collecting Chaos Space Marines box and wonder if that and a bunch of Night Lords helmets off Forge World (the skull ones, not the stupid bat-wing ones) were a viable acquisition. I also binge read a few blogs.

(By the way, Jimmy, your Eldar army looked lovely, and I’m sorry for all the egotistical and derailing responses to your posts; upon rereading them now I am struck by a sense of wisdom, and a frequent “oh, I should have said this, instead of gabbling on about things I already understood”.)

This is the perfect opportunity for me to raise a glass to A Gentleman’s Ones, and to recommend – besides his excellent army logs and game reports for the Arrugginiti and Onorevoli Chapters – this post on inverting colour schemes and this one on bases and their power to unite disparate elements within a miniature or collection. As the man himself might say – glorious.

While I’m feeling recommendative (silence! it’s a perfectly cromulent word!), I should also like to draw attention to Gardens of Hecate, where work is put into that most neglected and ill-considered aspect of the wargame: terrain.

In conversation with Hawk Dave a couple of weeks ago (oh, the namedropping!) the great man happened to mention what a shame he thought it was that people didn’t spend model prices on terrain features. The reasons I detect behind this inarguable tendency are numerous. As Dave himself says, it’s not something you can actually play with. Adding something to an army feels more fulfilling.

I would add that terrain often has to be generic – it’s kept to the hills and woods level because that’ll work with damn near everything. When something like the Killzone tournament comes along, someone like Brian emerges to curate specific terrain for that specific environment – the rest of the time, what we generally want to curate is something that works with everything.

It’s an odd reversal of the trend toward the branded and proprietary that we see with miniatures and rules – and I think terrain has held out against that because, frankly, it’s something we had to do ourselves for the longest time, and so it’s taking longer for the Bought Kit to replace Termite Art as the standard practice.

I have a box of ‘scale’ hills and rivers that I should finish at some point. They’re huge. Tall enough to award elevation within WM/H, and broad enough that they aren’t dwarfed by the buildings, trees and some of the models on the table. Given that my kitchen table is a trifling 4′ x 3′, they almost dwarf the table; they imply something massive just off the edge, which is how I feel hills ought to work in the 25-32mm scale of my preferred wargames.

There’s another blog I wanted to recommend, but its name escapes me. It’s not Haute Macabre, but it’s something that feels like that: something arty and strange and a bit pretentious. The authors do a lot of kitbashing, play a lot of Mordheim, and carve out their own eloquent and erudite take on the shared universes of the Workshop. For the life of me I can’t remember what it’s called. That’s annoying.

Currently Playing… a spot of Dawn of War II and that’s honestly about it. I’m feeling a bit flighty right now. I ‘should’ be giving WoW a roll since Legion’s out now, but in honesty, I can’t be arsed. I have no intention of being sucked into the serpent’s coils again. It can wait. It can wait until it’s bloody well working properly, for one thing.

want to play some Black Crusade. It’s coming to the point where I might put up some sort of notice in the ‘Model Centre’ in town – it’s been a year, they’re still selling GW kits, it can’t be a total flash in the pan.

Currently Modelling…

A Scourge starter set for Dropzone Commander. I scored a bargain on the Facebook group immediately before taking a short break from Facebook (I realised I’d spent the best part of a day mindlessly scrolling up and down instead of doing anything worthwhile, and that I couldn’t focus for thirty seconds without popping open a new tab for the blue and white god: that’s an addiction profile if ever I saw one, and I’m not having that). There’s a set of command cards, which I’ve opened and sleeved, and a second starter force, which I’ve decided to sell rather than overloading on bread and butter at the expense of the full dining experience offered by the Scourge range.

I’m also painting the Mammoth. Finally. The armour is done, the skin is done, and some of the metal has received its basecoat, with metallic ink to follow. It stalled slightly while I thought about how I would be painting ropes (of which there are many), nails and  tusks (which are prominent) and the howdah (which is a significant detail). I’m still not sure about the ropes. Purple is technically my spot colour and is thus far absent from the figure, but I’m worried about it detracting from the gun barrels and fists. The nails and tusks are going to look suspiciously similar to the armour, but I think I can treat it like I do the skin on the infantry, i.e. worth a layer of Actual Paint besides the lazy man’s “slap ink on everything” that deals with the rest of the model.

Currently Listening To… the Sucker Punch soundtrack. Say what you like about that film, there’s a bangin’ set of tunes on it. This one’s my favourite.

[Off Topic] Currently…

Currently PonderingEmergence vs. Determinism, although not in the usual “railroading r bad and u r bad for doin it” sense. It’s more to do with how the process of designing and ‘solving’ encounters works. Perhaps “Imagineer vs. Prepper” might be a better dichotomy.

Every so often Ben (co-host of that podcast I pretended to do for a while) pops up to ask for my perspective on a strategic or tactical choice that’s emerged in his Star Wars play-by-forum game, and I’m always flabberghasted by the amount of detail – if-this-then-that-ah-but-what-if-this that he presents in these scenarios. It’s not a PbP thing either – he’s the same in tabletop, he seems to think that he needs an elaborate map of his Brujah’s haven and a series of boltholes established all over the city.

Jaro, the DM of my intermittent Roll20 game, is the same – he’s a nice bloke but asking for exact rules on composition, cost and storage of bullets made me raise an eyebrow or two. In Jaro’s  case there’s an element of damage by a dick-move DM who once had an entire party die of exposure because nobody had said they were wearing clothes (this is a dick move because they were in mid-adventure when he dropped this bombshell). Jaro is something of an enthusiast for precision and adherence to rulebook and sourcebook, I think because he wants insulation from this sort of cockbothering behaviour, but it makes for some friction between us since I am definitely not inclined to the “gotcha” nor to the elaborate and intricate modelling of situations.

What I am about is a sketchier kind of gameplay where the fun is not in solving an elaborate situation with detailed resources and forward planning, but in making shit up as you go along. If there needs to be a chandelier for someone to swing off, there will be a chandelier (although dice must be rolled for swinging and the results of the roll are binding). If there needs to be an escape route it will be there when someone looks for it, if they look for it in a plausible place and if  they roll well on some sort of “can you find it in time” check.

This applies whether I’m playing or running the game. If I’m playing… well, the 5e game has now settled down into a predictable and well-oiled machine where I come up with a bare-bones plan which will work and leaves room to improvise, Charles overcomplicates it with needless flourishes and excessive moving parts which nevertheless impress Jaro into letting us get away with it, and we both have to bully Arianna into taking any sort of risk when executing the plan.

(Sidenote: Look, if you roll a rogue you have to accept that you’ll be sent on dangerous sneaky solo stuff, it’s the law, if you wanted to stay at the back and be safe you should have bagged the coveted Cleric/Mage slot and then I’d have been slavishly defending you and not Charles, and yes, I know you’re reading this, Ari, because you hang on my every golden word.)

I suspect this sort of thing has come to my attention because I’ve been playing a lot of single-player CRPGs lately, and those are all about picking your way through a predetermined encounter or chain of quests that trigger in a particular order. I generally suck at this since I’m used to muddling through and improvising, not having to talk to that guy to get that objective before I do this thing so I can actually get XP and phat lewtz and so on. I am getting better at it, but I still occasionally think “can I not just come out with my hands up, spin a plausible yarn about being attacked by four big lads with guns, and coming off best in the shoot-out because I’m brilliant, and then Dementate their disbelief away?”

Currently Playing: Besides occasional sessions of 5e or LotFP on the Intertrons, I am mostly playing Vampire: the Masquerade – Bloodlines. I tried this for about five minutes back in the day (real time, strike one! FPS/action controls, strike two! likelihood of accidentally punching a hooker, breaching the Mass-Charade and getting shot in the cobblers, strike three!) but, like Planescape, I’ve reappraised it after a few years away. Buying one of those Razr game controller things (so that I didn’t wear out one half of my expensive split ergonomic keyboard, which I bought so that I didn’t wear out my ailing wrists while typing several thousand words a week for work) has helped me learn how to FPS even as it’s made my MMO-ing suffer and contributed to a drop-off in Warcraftery.

Bloodlines is fun, in a very oWoD kind of way – it feels like a sort of farewell tour of all the wacky shit which was due to disappear when Time of Judgement came out, and if approached in that style it’s not bad. Sadly, the game does indulge in the Major Sins of front-loading, reducing interactivity while NPCs show off in cutscenes, and including arbitrary combats which show up the limitations of my social-build Tremere, but… well, it’s oWoD.

(ETA: This is the sort of business decision which only makes sense if you’re White Wolf. You’re in the process of wrapping up your old game line and launching a whole new universe, and you make your tie-in video game a valedictory salute to the old rather than a launch platform for the new world with its new concepts, encouraging crossover and buy-in. It’s almost as bad as making a mechanistic nerdy-boy game with no particular focus while paranormal romance is ruling the roost, or taking the makers of a major motion picture based on a short story within your setting to court instead of using the buzz to republish and revamp said material. Essentially, you are spectacularly dumb and you deserve to go out of business within the decade.)

I am playing the GOG.com version with the extensive fan patch that actually makes it playable. I am also playing a Malkavian who thinks he’s a ninja (with a katana and a six dot Melee pool he is not entirely wrong about this, and shafting Sabbat thugs up the arse from Obfuscated safety has yet to get old) and a Tremere lounge singer (shagging her way through most encounters and heavily reliant on Disciplines in a scrap). I experimented, briefly, with a Ventrue dominatrix and a Nosferatu eco-terrorist hacker, but the Ventrue was a bit dull and the Nosferatu is definitely hard mode for someone not accustomed to first-person stealth-em-up. If this lot were all in the same party it’d be ‘perfect’ Classic WoD.

Incidentally, while the other V:tM game was very faithful in its adoption of Disciplines but introduced some overly granular percentile bollocks for stats and had an awful level-by-dots feeding/healing/buffing mechanic, this one keeps the elegance of the dot-based system (streamlining it with fewer dots and more defined combinations) and does good things with Disciplines. Streamlining Auspex, Presence, Obfuscate and so on as per the physical Disciplines and eliminating the action economy horrors  of Celerity (as far as I can tell, having not gotten to use it yet) is a good idea. I’ll have to try it in the tabletop game at some point. Hacking White Wolf’s excessive mechanisation = good call.

Currently Reading: The Prince (the treatise by Machiavelli, not the Netherese review/antiSocJus blogger/belch-vector, although I’m reading his blog too). Rob Kuntz was surprised that I could manage to write decent Renaissance-esque intrigue settings without having read The Prince and I’ve been meaning to make good on this for a while now. The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England (decently accessible social history, conveniently attuned to the needs of a modern reader who wants to understand the difference between Now and Then, possibly recommended reading for twenty-first century gamer-prats). The first four Discworld books (yes, again), although I’m currently on a reduced-fiction diet as I have bought quite a lot of non-fiction (Spinoza, Castaneda, Bowker’s biography of Orwell, the rest of Padel’s poetry essays, and a collection of excerpted Brecht) and had it sitting there for months.

Currently HobbyingI bought a job lot of cultists, demons, villains, zombies etc.  from Heresy Miniatures (they have a sale on until the end of July, buy now, beat the rush, help Andy recover from honourable Dragon-related fiscal suicide). These will be making up a Blood Bowl team/rounding out a Frostgrave warband/providing something for my Otherworld adventurers to slap around in RPGs. I was working on a new wargaming table but space seems to be at a premium these days and that one may have to go the way of the dodo. I realise that I barely wargame at all these days, which has checked my hand every time I consider giving Frostgrave or SAGA a proper poke. Insert gripe about how I am old and tired and hate learning new rules, too.

Currently Smoking: Poles.

[Meta Gaming] Terror, Horror and the Gothic Fantasy

There is a split in the tradition of Gothic fiction, almost as old as the recognisable genre itself. At its most clear, the split is between the ‘terror’ Gothic of Ann Radcliffe and the ‘horror’ Gothic of Matthew ‘Monk’ Lewis. This is not after-the-fact critical flimflam but a distinction articulated by Radcliffe herself, around the time she was writing The Italian as a repudiation of Lewis’ style and proclivities.

Radcliffe’s Gothic plays upon the sensibilities of the novel readers of her day – middle-class women for the most part – and beneath its explained supernatural trappings it is as much a matter of manners as Austen. Among its qualities is the emphasis on ‘imagined evils over actual, physical threats, in accordance with theories of the sublime (terror expands our mind through imagination, while horror contracts it through earthly fears)’. The surroundings and situations in which Radcliffe’s heroines find themselves prey upon their susceptible, sensitive minds until they keel over in a swoon of pure terror at the thought of what might be about to happen.

As you’d expect, Lewis’ ‘horror’ Gothic is much more about physical threats: the dagger held to Matilda’s bosom presents the threat of injury to her own person and of sexual temptation to the onlooking Ambrosio, while the novels’ incidents are full of physical desire and panicked flight through dark places.

This is not to say that a given work is either terrifying or horrible, although Lewis seems to have won out. Terror and horror are present to varying degrees in varying works within the tradition. Masterpieces of the Gothic successfully blend them to some extent.

Frankenstein has the grotesque appearance and physical power of the Creature, but it also has the moral sensibility of the Creature and his creator at its heart, the ethical struggle over what the Creature might do or be. Dracula is closer to Lewis, a series of perilous incidents unfolding upon one another, but the physical and spiritual contamination of undeath is a threat of terror to the rational Victorian middle classes forming Stoker’s cast and readership. Gormenghast, the peak of the tradition as far as I’m concerned, comes in for flak because ‘nothing happens in the first book’ – the truth is that the first book is a slow burner which explores terror and, barring the library fire and Steerpike’s flight across the rooftops, provides little physical threat. The third book is a fever dream of horror as Titus reels from incident to incident with little comprehension of where he is or what is happening to him – the great evil which he imagines is the absence of a physical qualifier for his experience, the possibility that Gormenghast does not exist and never existed, but he is constantly beset by lesser physical evils and these drive the narrative. The middle book is the pinnacle, in which the physical perils of fire and water harmonise with the psychological perils of ritual and unfettered nature. But I digress.

On screen, Gothic often slides too far into horror. Horror films are rich with incidents and implied physical threats but they do not always achieve that access to the sublime sensibilities which is necessary for terror and thus the complete Gothic experience. Without cultivated access to the inner lives of characters, the events of Gothic cinema – however faithfully adapted – lose their ability to terrify. This is further compounded by the tendency of Gothic cinema to go easier on the physical threats than the gore porn of ‘pure’ horror. The result is the cosy non-horror of the Hammer movie or the Hinchcliffe-era Doctor Who serial: the style of the Gothic without its substance.

What is all this to the Master of Games? Well, let us consider Ravenloft. The original Module I6 is a blur of Hammeresque visual trappings and generic events which falls into exactly the same trap as the films which set its tone. It has too much of Lewis’ lurid adventuresome romp and not enough of Radcliffe’s excision of sensibility for my liking.

This is a problem of D&D and its ilk, if I’m honest. Terror resides in the imagination and the characters, the avatars by which we navigate the imagined world of the RPG, do not have an imagination of their own. It is the sensibility of the players at one’s actual table which must be identified and incorporated into the events of the game, and we must go beyond “your character may die!” – this is an imaginary peril which puts the wind up a player but it is nothing that roleplaying in some other genre does not accomplish equally as well. For the Gothic we must go further.

I have lunged for and sometimes achieved the complete Gothic experience in my gaming. It has invariably been done with players who I know well. I know their heartstrings and can saw on them as a virtuoso on his fiddle. In the early days of my Victorian Age Vampire group (fourteen years: we were so much younger then…) things were more Lewis than Radcliffe, a lurid bloodsoaked romp through Victorian London, more style than substance. It wasn’t until I knew the people behind the characters that I could feed them clashes in sensory perception, fragmented awareness of time, isolation in exactly the sort of place that preyed on their thoughts or the looming presence of a genius loci, and in so doing provoke them into roleplaying convincing fear or madness – and in one case have one player sleeping with the lights on for a week.

A Gothic module will only ever achieve tired aesthetic Hammerisms – the genre’s lowest common denominator played for lighthearted, unmoving fun. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not the pinnacle of Gothic roleplaying. That needs tailoring. It needs players with sensibilities which can be played upon by a DM willing to do so to a point just shy of trauma. It’s not for everyone. Too much resilience drives it back into the realm of cliché and pastiche: not enough and the DM becomes a mere bully, fucking with vulnerable players who aren’t entertained by his antics. I haven’t had a group who can do it right for years and the last time I did I let them down by running Module I6 by the jolly hollow book instead of reaching out for what I knew was there, but I now have a couple of players with whom the right chord (D minor) might just be struck.

[WM/H] Lyoss Is Burning

Had a cracking game of Warmachine vs. Hordes last night.

Player: Kapt. Von
Faction: The Master Race Skorne
Casters: 1/1
Points: 35/35
Lord Arbiter Hexeris (*6pts)
* Titan Gladiator (8pts)
* Titan Sentry (9pts)
* Aptimus Marketh (3pts)
Cataphract Incindiarii (Leader and 5 Grunts) (9pts)
Paingiver Beast Handlers (Leader and 3 Grunts) (2pts)
Praetorian Swordsmen (Leader and 9 Grunts) (6pts)
* Praetorian Swordsmen Officer & Standard (2pts)
Mortitheurge Willbreaker (2pts)

Player: The Laird Holmes
Faction: Elf Qaeda Retribution of Scyrah
Casters: 1/1
Points: 35/35
Adeptis Rahn Shyeel (*6pts)
* Phoenix (10pts)
Dawnguard Sentinels (Leader and 9 Grunts) (9pts)
* Banshee (10pts)
* Dawnguard Sentinel Officer & Standard (2pts)
Stormfall Archers (Leader and 3 Grunts) (5pts)
Arcanist (1pts)
House Shyeel Magister (2pts)
Mage Hunter Assassin (2pts)

Scenario: Mosh Pit
Nice symmetrical terrain layout: the Pit was ringed by a forest, hill and patch of broken ground on each side at 4″ intervals, and contained a couple of obstructions (big rocks) about 60mm in base area, for interest’s sake. Didn’t matter too much apart from giving the Stormfall Archers elevation and encouraging me to split my forces around the obstruction on my side of the board (with Hexeris hiding behind one for a couple of turns, because I don’t have a pair).

Didn’t take pictures. I had a new caster, new measuring tools and a mogul biryani to manage, and the game took a good couple of hours anyway ’cause the Laird Holmes and I are both… shall we say that we both like to think things over? What with one thing and another I didn’t want to slow affairs down any further.

The lists were gentlemanly, with no FA: C doom pieces besides a bit of caster support, no turn two win buttons – and the play focused on piece trading and Getting Shit Done rather than camping arbitrary areas of the table for abstract points. Doesn’t mean we weren’t playing to win, but we were also playing to make a game of it. When travelling to a venue and paying club fees and so on costs you a good £20 a time before the curry is factored in, you don’t want to spend more time setting up and tearing down than you do actually playing the damn game. When I approach a wargame with this in mind, all the Internet babble fades away and I remember why we’re here.

Once again, some poor Retribution player brought Rahn and then had him clipped by an Incendus shot, spending the rest of the game on fire. Titan Sentries are well hard and Lord Arbiter Hexeris is also a bit fierce – although a list with him at the helm is notably slow after one’s had the luxury of the Supreme Archdomina. I missed my Tyrant Commander and would consider trading two Arcuarii out to put him back in. People who say he’s just Black Spot on a stick aren’t trying hard enough – I have a post prepared on this topic but I want to finish painting the model first. I find it amusing that my supposedly backfield, spellslinging, not-getting-involved warlock ended up making a melee caster kill on his first day out, while my allegedly front-line sword-swinging warlock has yet to draw a blade in anger. Doin It Rong, as ever.

This was also the first game where my Praetorians didn’t make a suicidal run across the table, but settled for edging sideways, fanning out and baiting. They still died – well, half of them died, Marketh was running on a full soul count for turns two, three and four – but they mulched some Dawnguard and chewed up a Banshee a bit. On a related note, his Lairdship deserves a brownie point for being the first person to remove one of my Cataphracts, let alone three.

I am also experimenting with spod sticks for the first time. Thus far they are good for getting right in next to the model, but they break the game’s flow while I count and recount inches and screw/unscrew the measuring tools. There are two sets in different colours, so I’m thinking that it might be a decent idea to prepare an odd numbers stick and an even numbers stick to improve flow.

Profitable evening out.

[WM/H] Road to SmogCon II – Dead and Breakfast

Anyone interested in a convention report covering five versions of the same RPG scenario, with no pictures of the actual content (because I was too busy running the games to faff around with any of that Instagramming-pictures-of-your-dinner nonsense), plus a single insanely casual game of Hordes vs. Warmachine?

Also, an obnoxiously British gatorman and his friend.

I hope so, ’cause that’s what you’re getting.

I have to confess that despite having forty days on the clock, I didn’t actually achieve everything on my to-do list. The models didn’t have much more paint on them than in that last post, the last player character model was actually bought five minutes after the first demo session ended, the scenario wasn’t tested and the Mammoth is still in bits. The maps, however, looked smashing, mostly because I had nothing to do with them other than describing what I wanted to Robin and then leaving well alone for a few days.

The scenario itself was pretty straightforward: the PCs had been captured by Skorne and offered their freedom if they agreed to help the Skorne out in attacking a Khadoran border fortress, by delaying or destroying the reinforcements on their way to the fort and then meeting up with the Skorne to support the attack. Each of the PCs had a paragraph or so of motivational notes designed to thicken the plot and encourage arguments, betrayals and contrariness. Most of the NPCs were entry-level mooks, but the commanders of the Skorne assault and Khadoran defence were statted out like proper characters with about 50 XP sunk into them – in other words, they’d mulch any single PC who tried to take them on.

Only one group out of five stuck by the Skorne, honoured the arrangement and helped Razaak the Undying seize the fortress and claim his prize. One group attempted to betray him, got caught out, and managed to escape their bonds in time to backstab him during the attack. Another group fragmented, ended up killing both major NPCs and founded a petty mercenary kingdom in the deep Khadoran tundra. Yet another switched sides and agreed to work with the Khadorans, earning themselves a contract with the Greylords Covenant, and the last lot were going to play it straight but lost their cool in the heat of battle and decided to slaughter Razaak and his army before they were halfway across the field. (In retrospect, naming him ‘the Undying’ was asking for trouble…) I’m proud to say that at least one PC was taken out in single combat with the Undying in each session, though, and that – exactly as planned – every group had some internal tension over whose side they were on.

Spending the weekend running the same scenario allowed me to directly compare the playstyles to which I was exposed – the hardcore roleplayers who went back to try and negotiate with Razaak, the competitive Warmachiners who poked at the edges of the scenario and looked for ways to break it, the first-time roleplayers who took my advice about using everything on the character sheet to heart, and the one group who spent at least sixty of their hundred and eighty minutes coming up with increasingly elaborate plans to delay the Khadorans, blame the Skorne, switch sides and get everyone killed. (To be fair, it worked!) It also meant that I could run it in my sleep by Sunday morning, which is good, since that’s essentially what I ended up doing.

It’s my own fault really; myself and my roommate Charles both conked out early on the Saturday night, woke up at 2 a/m and said “fuck going back to sleep, let’s hit the Iron Arena.” The result was a leisurely game ‘twixt my Skorne and Charles’ Retribution – it had to be leisurely since neither of us could count reliably and one of us had lost the tape measure, resulting in a lot of bodged measurements with spray templates and widgets. It was… well, it was a delightful bloodbath. Praetorians fell like teardrops in the face of the Retribution’s firepower, and elves baked to a crisp beneath the shells of the Incendiarii. Charles’ feat turn saw my entire battlegroup slammed halfway back to the table edge and flat on their backs; mine saw a prized character myrmidon downed and the last Praetorians cutting swathes through the Houseguard infantry. Charles called it after that – with one battered warjack, five infantry models and a warcaster on fire, it wasn’t quite clear how the elves could punch through forty-eight wounds of Cataphract infantry to reach Makeda and avenge their dead.

Charles’ conservative, control-heavy, let-them-come-to-you-and-perish-before-your-awesome-firepower playstyle doesn’t transfer to roleplaying games, though. In the absence of players for the last demo session, we joined the Epic campaign on the other side of the hall, and… well, by the first round of the second combat Charles’ Stormsmith/Storm Sorceress was an unconscious heap in the corner, blacked out from racking up twice the recommended number of fatigue points and badly hurt from bouncing a blighted Nyss just far enough back for it to counter-charge her. I’m glad to say my Monster Hunter fared a little better… at least he managed to cut up a Nyss Sorceress before rocks fell and everyone died, quite literally. Last job for the day was to retrieve Charles’ entry to the Golden Thrall painting contest (shortlisted for the Single Miniature trophy) and crawl off for a curry and a well deserved kip.

Here’s the thing about SmogCon. It’s bloody expensive (I wouldn’t have been able to go if I hadn’t been splitting the room and food costs) even if you aren’t buying back into Privateer Press’ games in order to attend – but every time I go I remember that there’s more to PP games than tedious 50 point Steamroller tournaments where every millimetre counts and the army lists are built to win the games before they start.

One-day tournaments attract a particular kind of player. SmogCon attracts everyone. If you play anything produced by Privateer Press you’ll be able to play it there, and given that it runs non-stop from 9 on the Friday to 5 on the Sunday, you’ll be able to play a lot of it. Going to SmogCon is a breath of fresh air (as it were), and it turns me from embittered ragequitter to born-again fanboy every time.