Hour of the Geek #1 – “It’s Not A Man Cave, OK?”

God, that’s an awful thumbnail. Rest assured the others YouTube selected were even worse. I promise I don’t always look like a total derpazoid.

Anyway, this is another attempt at that thing I used to do back in the House of Paincakes/Year of Frugal Gaming days, when I was an absolute trollop and would offer myself to any blog that would have me at tuppence a post and a shilling on Sundays to spite the Lord. Further transmissions will follow because I made about three of these in one night.

[Off Topic] Feels Like A Hundred Years

I’ve been at this for a while now. My first gaming blog launched in 2009, which was apparently peak time for new blogs to start – before the glut of everyone and their dog doing it brought on a state of content shock. The volume of free content positively exploded over the next five years, leaving us all feeling glutted, sated, bloated and positively flatulent with free stuff to read and argue about.

By 2014 I was also extremely depressed and, consequently, started churning money through the hobby, buying things to cheer myself up and selling them off again every time I needed to move house, which was too damn often. This rootlessness is a hallmark of my generation (for my sins, I’m just about young enough to qualify as one of those millennials who are killing all the industries everywhere) and, as a consequence, it means I don’t really have the usual Middlehammer experience.

You know the one I mean. “Oh, I played that a lot when I was at school, then I went to uni/got a girlfriend/sorted my life out, but when I bought a house my mum went through the attic and sent my old stuff over…”

Not round ‘ere, mate. Anything that’s not been played with in a couple of years is a calcified asset, money waiting to be freed up; any project that’s ceased to move and live and satisfy will go the same way before long. It’s the only way I could free up space and funding for the next thing and, often, the only way the rent would be paid next month.

I haven’t been able to keep stuff, ever, and to be honest, the wheeling and dealing and bargain hunting was always part of the fun for me. (Obviously, in this day and age it’s all eBay scalpers and mass-produced skeletons going for £25 a pop or take your business elsewhere, a seller’s market if ever there was one – but that’s another story.)

But I was lucky enough to get one of my Middlehammer armies back, and even luckier to stumble into a nice bunch of lads who are still playing proper Warhammer on square bases like we did when I was a wee ‘un. And truth be told, it’s been a lot more fun than all the years of slogging through the fashionable what’s-meta-this-year of competitive Warmachine and the can-I-really-be-arsed-learning-a-whole-new-game of 40K’s edition cycle and the rise of Age of Sigmar.

Whenever I stop and think about this sort of thing I become terribly maudlin, and maudlin’s not a good frame of mind for me. Last time it went out of control and I deleted my entire web presence – all the social media, the blog and its archives, everything went in one night.

Let it burn is what I say. I don’t want to drag everything I said or did over the last nine years behind me like a forty thousand word dingleberry. My most popular post by far was me getting my knackers in a knot over Heinrich Kemmler’s name, which is so utterly trivial now that the gaming kultur war has boiled over into something that distorts lives, careers, the fates of nations…

But I can’t let it all go. I still play, and even more occasionally paint, and sometimes it’s fun to talk about what I’ve been up to. So here we all are, in the looming shadow of Nagashizzar where all fates come to dust. Nine years down the line from registering the original GAME OVER, with a lot of mistakes made and lessons learned along the way. One hundred posts (well, ninety-nine) survived the cull.

Glad to have you back.

Shall we, then?

[WFB] Godspeed You, Black Emperor

Some years ago, when I was in the habit of playing wargames more often than blogging about them (we’re talking 2008-ish here), I wrote up some background for a WFB campaign.

The tentative notion was that it’d involve my Vampire Counts, Dr. Shiny’s Skaven, Blackheart’s Empire and Awesome Mike’s Dwarfs. A lot of water’s flowed under a lot of bridges since then, but there’s still a concept here for a WFB/WFRP crossover campaign that I’d like to run with someone someday, maybe.

The year is 2018. The Empire is divided. The grand provinces of Marienburg, Middenland and Reikland vie for the Imperial throne. The ascendant Vampire Counts of Sylvania have conquered their neighbouring realms and the Ottilia of occupied Talabecland could well become a puppet Emperor. Bretonnia encroaches further and further on the Empire’s borders. The Count of Wissenland has reached out to the Empire’s oldest allies, the Dwarfs of the Grey Mountains, begging for any aid they have to offer… but they have their own battles to fight in the dark beneath the world.

The idea here was to make the most out of WFRP’s more diplomatic relationship between the fractured Imperial provinces and the other powers, and to project the idea of Vlad von Carstein trying another way to take over the Empire. Sylvania isn’t an Elector County, but Talabecland is, and it’s one of the contenders for the Empire. By force of arms, Vlad has established a bloc of cowed Electors who’ll support his preferred candidate; by accepting the Ottilia’s surrender he’s gained the ear of a candidate (probably strongarmed into line by having a bunch of vampires hanging around his court).

There’s room for a lot of stuff here. Intrigue and politics in occupied Talabheim. Brokering allegiances between the other Imperial claimants – none of them is prepared to stand down and let another take the throne, and Vlad doesn’t command a majority as long as they stand free.

Guerilla warfare in Hochland, or along the River Stir, or even (if we want to go stark staring mad) going all Rambo-style with a resistance movement in the Halfling Moot.(Your host retains his healthy contempt for all things Halfling but acknowledges Middlehammer Halflings – malodorous thieving runts who procreate like the proverbial bunnies – as amusing enough to be spared the lash.)

Bretonnian piracy, or even full on invasion, along the Nordland coast or the Axebite Pass. Battles in the deep darkness of the Grey Mountains; an urgent message sent to the Dwarf strongholds.

Loads you can do with this, and that’s just the roleplaying. Battles would probably punctuate short campaigns of RP – as diplomatic efforts succeeded or failed we’d move on to a wargame to resolve them. Could even sneak some Mordheim in there as I imagine the City of the Damned is still an important source of resources, and a key lynchpin in the Sylvanian defences (not to mention an electoral seat; if Vlad could take that, would he have a legitimate claim? what if he could find the Count of Ostermark’s Runefang?).

Unsure which version of the rules I’d favour; second edition WFRP is contemporary with sixth edition WFB (my favourite), but first edition WFRP is of course the game of kings and is designed to dovetail with second edition WFB (the one Oldhammerers… sort of like, but play less than third?)

OR I could just play Warhammer: Total War. I never used to buy that “computer gaming kills tabletop gaming” garbage and still don’t, but the lure of playing with myself and Forging the approximate kind of Narrative I want is extremely strong. I was delighted to note that the Mordheim Vampire campaign kind of synchs up with the Total War one. The earliest hints of a betrayal among the Von Carstein clan play out as Mannfred and Vlad go to war at the head of subfactions, and playing the Vampire Counts or Von Carstein campaigns involves sorting out a civil war in Sylvania before taking over the world (TM). That’d be some top content for the old YouTube channel, don’t you think?

[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)”

[V:tM] V5 Pre-Alpha: Readthrough Review

Brother Ben and I have given the fifth edition Vampire: the Masquerade pre-alpha rules a coat of looking at. Here are some key thoughts from our diatribe.

Of Target Numbers and How To Reach Them

Ben: At first glance, sixes to succeed plus Willpower offering a whole reroll plus the option to Succeed At A Cost (and choose not to if you don’t like the cost) seems very forgiving to the player.

Von: I think it’s a bit less forgiving than a guaranteed no-cost bare-bones success for the low low price of one Willpower point, and at first I wasn’t quite sure how necessary it was to have both.

Ben: That’s a very powerful mechanic right there. “Hmm, Ranulf needs to really really survive this fight with Urbicus, but I don’t think I rolled enough successes on that melee to break out of his grapple/bite. I will spend a point of willpower, keep all the successes from the previous roll and re-roll all the failures.”

Ben: I like Succeed At A Cost too. Not sure the player should know the price of failure and have the chance to opt out… but not sure they SHOULDN’T have that choice either. But with both in the game I wonder – could critical dice rolls bog down into market style haggling?

Von: Yeah. That’s what I thought: always, always look for ways to eliminate stages from resolution.

Ben: Agreed there. Streamline play. I like the GM mechanic for Take Half – it streamlines stuff.

Von: I don’t think you need a reroll mechanic and a GM-taxing-potential-to-haggle-analysis-paralysis mechanic. It seems to me that “succeed at a cost” is one of those rules which is dependent on a given GM’s ability to invent and balance consequences on the fly, i.e. the sort of rule which is very dependent on the Trust Tree, i.e. the opposite direction from most modern RPGs, which are all about insulating players and GMs from having to make that kind of unreliable call.

Ben: TRUST??? TRUST? THAT HAS NO PLACE HERE! WE WILL INSTEAD SURROUND OURSELVES WITH BLOAT AND CRUFT SO THAT I NO ONE EVER HAS TO EXPLAIN THEMSELVES, BUT CAN INSTEAD HIDE BEHIND AN AUTHORITARIAN “IT’S IN THE BOOK!”

Von: Yes, quite. Now stop working for Paizo.

Von: Oh, hang on, I’ve just caught something about Succeed at a Cost – it only triggers if you’re ONE success short.

Ben: That makes a difference.

Von: Yeh. I guess it’s there to create drama around a near miss?

Ben: This gains support from me.

Von: “You don’t hang on to the ledge yourself but you DO grab Nico’s hand, now you can have a contrived moment of friendship and heroism while dramatic music plays.”

Von: I don’t like losing the botch/10-again rule though. I like that some possible outcomes on a d10 have more significance. At the moment it doeesn’t need to be d10s – it could be done with coin flips. The probability events being used don’t need ten different outputs, so it’s pointless having ten different outputs.

Ben: All you have done there is stated something in its favour – WE CAN PLAY EVEN IF NO-ONE BRINGS DICE.

Von: We could… although I find coins physically harder to manipulate and read than dice. *flips coin, it flies off, lands in someone’s drink/on the floor/in the soup etc.*

Ben: Was thinking along those lines myself.

Von: It’s more that – OK, if WW want us to use the d10 artifact, for nostalgia’s sake/because IT’S GAMING SO POLYHEDRA, they need some gradation in the outputs to justify that artifact. Some of the backlash I’ve seen indicates that people instinctively understand that.

Of Character Stats

Ben: Character attributes have been folded riiiiiight down by the look of it? The 9 attributes vs. 3 attributes + specializations? At the moment I am not quite sure I see why they made this change. They say it’s to allow for characters to customize and personalize their characters, but it seems to actually REMOVE some flexibility to me.

Von: I think they’ve gone a bit too far there. There WERE some obvious dump stats on the old sheet, but I thought Requiem did a decent job of fixing those and making the 3×3 something sensible and useful, like a look up table for what Attribute you should use. BUT: Physical, Social, Mental, with specialities, is all I’ve ever bothered with for my NPCs, and it seems to work.

Ben: Hmm. The higher your physical stats, the more damage you can take in a simple ‘you have more boxes to fill’ system. And from what I saw of combat in ‘how you roll to hit’ above, I gather there are no Soak rolls now. You make an opposed roll to hit, and the loser of that roll takes the difference between winner and loser as damage. COMBAT MIGHT BE FAST. 

Von: Yeah, they’ve stripped that sixteen stage “getting punched in the face” process down a bit.

Ben: I also like that the character whose turn it is can LOSE to their target and have the tables turned on them.

Ben: I see the damage track no longer has stunning/bashing/bullshitting/burning/whatevering all being counted separately. It’s just ‘this could worry a mortal’ and ‘this could worry a vampire’.

Von: Like Second Edition. The Sensible Edition.

Ben: It states that all superficial damage taken is halved before being applied to the damage tracker. Is that for vampires only, or mortals too? Or is the difference simply that a vampire considers far FAR more types of attack to be superficial?

Von: I think you’re right – vampires can walk off a lot more. I see several layers of granularity here: types of damage that can be halved, but those convert when you fill the track and loop around again, damaging an impaired target.

Ben: That sort of makes sense to me – and we’re already doing it after a fashion. “Ranulf jumped that badly burned (aggravated) Tremere in the sewers. His tackle would only have been superficial damage, but that guy was so badly chewed up already that the damage looped round and converted – meaning Ranulf’s tackle broke some bones and knocked the Tremere into torpor.”

Von: Exactly. It’s mostly about eliminating the bash/lethal split and the damage/soak rolls. Speeding fights up – which we kind of half do anyway by using attack rolls to modify damage rolls.

Ben: I have to admit, so far I like this system. I mean, I need to actually PLAY it, but so far I like it.

Von: There are a few places where I think it could stand to streamline more (any time I have to roll some dice, find a difference, convert one of those to a different significance, then do some halving, I’m sensing too much granularity) but it’s… close?

Of Hunger

Ben: Hmm… we no-longer have blood pools? Interesting. Brings in the idea that Vampires can… ‘fast’ for want of a better term.

Ben: Is the new Hunger system LESS book keeping than the old Blood Pools? We’re not tracking each point of Blood anymore, but we are now having to track how many times we do something that SHOULD be a Blood Point. Functionally identical? And then on TOP of that, we have to make another set of bookkeeping rolls at the end the scene to see how much our hunger changes…

Von: There’s a huge difference between Blood and Hunger that I think you’ve missed. It comes down to what WW want the core of the vampire game experience to be.

Von: IF it’s ‘how much blood you have on you’, the actual act of getting the blood is decentred. Blood points lead to that mindset where you have blood packs in your pockets as “magic potions” like in the PC games, or magical bullshit blood gems like the Tremere use.

Von: So let’s re-engineer. Vampire. Creature that preys on the living. Ergo, preying on the living should be a core, fundamental, unavoidable, unelidable part of a game about being a vampire.

Von: Here’s Hunger. It’s a drawback that doesn’t go away until you feed. It gets worse the more stuff you do. NOW: I think the end-of-scene book-keeping may have its drawbacks, if it’s executed coldly right on the heels of something highly dramatic, BUT I think I prefer it to tracking and fretting during every action where blood may come into play. Want to do a thing? Do a thing. Give yourself a hunger tick. It may come back to bite you afterwards, but that’s cool. Stride out of a confrontation, full of rage and thirst, go hunt to slake it. It… feels vampiric.

Ben: Agreed. I’m liking the clan-specific reactions to Hunger too…

Von: Same. ‘specially the Gangrel ones.

Ben: Actually I thought the Gangrel get off a bit more lightly than everyone else. Their most basic Tell is the same as a far FAR lower level one from the generic chart.

Von: They tickle and amuse me is all I mean. The Toreador ones are… asking for trouble though.

Of Disciplines

Von: Why is Aura Perception still there? It’s a pain in the ass, always has been.

Ben: Because it’s fairly central to Auspex? What would you have instead?

Von: I would streamline almost all Disciplines along the lines of VTM Bloodlines. “It basically does one thing, maybe picking up another dimension along the way, but essentially it modifies dice pools for particular things.”

Ben: I see some like Celerity are no longer just more dots = more of the same. I like the changes they’ve made to the ‘more, but better’ powers.

Von: I’m not sure I do, BUT I think if you’re going to do the “each dot represents a new power” thing, then extending that to the physical disciplines is only fair.

Ben: Indeed. All powers should progress the same. Not… “Brujah: one new dot? oh, you’re a little bit stronger. Tremere: one new dot? Here’s a whole raft of new bullshit auto-magical things you can do…”

Von: Yeah. I would personally prefer “Everyone: one new dot? OK, you get a bit better at that thing you do, and maybe a new element to that thing you do”, but you’re right.

Ben: Just read Potence – THAT’S changed a lot an- HOLY SHIT – USING THIS SYSTEM RANULF COULD PUNCH STRAIGHT THROUGH PLATE??? and it’s only a 1 dot ability use to gain his FULL Potence rating on damage rolls? 

Ben: I can’t see anything saying it works this way, but: Ranulf with his Potence 3 could put his fist straight through a knight’s breastplate…. would activating Potence 3 ALSO activate the lower levels of it? Specifically, would he still gain the enhanced damage of Potence 1 IN ADDITION to negating armour? Can’t see anything that says this is the case, but I have been sort of skimming.

Von: I think it’s one Rouse, one power. You want to do three Rouses for all your Potence effects, you be my guest fam.

Von: Think about Presence; would you want to trigger Awe, Dread Gaze and Entrancement all at once? (I can think of case where you might, actually, or at least to trigger them in that order…)

Ben: Given that I’ve seen at least one example where it explicitly stated that you also received the benefits of lower levels, this is what I expected.

Ben: I’m wondering if Disciplines don’t go beyond 3 dots or is that simply not written yet.

Von: My guess is what’s here is “enough to test the waters around the major, sensitive, bedrock-level changes like Hunger and Rousing and not needing four rolls to give someone a clip round the earhole.”

Ben: I assumed the same – ‘heres enough of the rules to test the core stuff. the rest either isn’t relevant or we haven’t included it in order to avoid muddying the test waters’. although to be honest… theres a LOT to be said for slimming down disciplines to Less Than Ten dots. can we remove needless complexity?

Ben: Using Potence as an example: the very first tier allows for near open ended actual ability. The more levels of Potence you have, the more auto-damage you actually DO. Not sure other powers have the same sort of flexibility though – in depth reading required. Some powers would lend them selves to a simple ‘you have more than three dots? then gain extra dice on your dice pool’ style stuff. But others, I suspect, definitely DON’T.

Von: Depends how you’re going to do the generation/elder mechanics, I suppose? I mean – YES, those eight or nine dot powers were seldom used, BUT those eight or nine dot powers quantify an element of the lore and atmosphere, namely “Methuselahs are running the world in their sleep”. IF that aspect is being toned down THEN the high-end powers can go.

Actual Play Review to follow. More on this as details emerge.

 

[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.