[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.

[Actual Play Review] Dropfleet Commander (Demo Day)

I find myself in the strange situation of having been to the Dropfleet Commander pre-launch event at the South Wales Gaming Centre and come away having spent no money on Dropfleet Commander. I do have a batch of four strange aquatic-looking spaceships  for the Scourge faction, but those were bestowed upon me for turning up and for buying Simon a pint.

Dropfleet Commander, like its companion Dropzone Commander (previously discussed here), is Quite Good. Much like Dropzone, it owes something of a debt to Games Workshop skirmish games (Battlefleet Gothic, in this case), not least because Andy Chambers wrote the rules for it, but the relationship is one of direct ancestry and improvement rather than “it’s basically Gothic without any GW trademarks in it”.

Engagements take place in high orbit, or low orbit, or the actual atmosphere of a planet. There are urbanised ‘clusters’ on the ground  (yer actual mission objectives) unto which you endeavour to deliver troops and vehicles by means of carriers – relatively lightweight spacefaring vessels capable of atmospheric flight. These are escorted into the fray by frigates, cruisers and battleships – other vessels of varying size, most of which can’t go below low orbit.

Unlike its spiritual ancestor, it doesn’t feel like a naval warfare game that’s pretending to happen in space; pin that on the three levels of playable altitude (across which shots can be fired, though munitions travel more accurately toward targets at similar height). The range of scenarios and deployment types also offer alternatives to the ‘ship of the line’ feeling that Gothic was rather prone to at its worst, and the frigates are actually useful (especially the Scourge ones, nippy little shits that can enter the atmosphere alongside the carriers).

Dropfleet does have one major flaw, however: the means by which all the fun stuff like altitude, damage inflicted to ships and energy spikes (which make a highly active vessel easier to detect from a distance, extending the effective range at which they can be targeted) is actually tracked. It’s done on the models’ bases, which have pegs, holes and swivelling windows which allow coloured card inserts to be seen.

These would make a great UI for a computer game, but on the tabletop they are fiddly as all hell and difficult to manipulate or even see without picking the model up. When one has to pick the model up every time one wishes to change or check its game state, something is wrong. By midway through the demo game on which I sat in, I was scheming what would need to go on a WM/H style card and how such a thing might be laid out.

This aside, I am sufficiently entertained by Dropfleet Commander to consider giving it and Dropzone a go. I’m attracted by the cross-compatibility between the two games, with the objective areas of the Dropfleet board representing a Dropzone battle, and by the approach taken to releases and backstory advancements, with each phase of releases and accompanying rulebook moving the game’s timeline along by a mere 100 days or so. There’s space in the setting for one to make up one’s own planets and personalities and plotlines, and of course my wheels are already turning with regards scaling up and laminating a map of South Wales so I can infest Blaenavon with Scourge and blow up Barry Island.

Currently Playing – just completed VtM Bloodlines for the second time (the Malkavian ninja and the Tremere lounge singer made it through, the Nosferatu stopped being interesting once I had five dots each in Obfuscate and Potence and I never really mustered the enthusiasm for a Ventrue). Re=acquired Diablo II, because I vaguely missed jamming runes into weapons, but that may have been an Error of Judgement now that I’ve been spoiled by graphics originating after the turn of the millennium.

Currently Modelling – the last bits for the Skorne army (unit of Immortals, Extoller Soulward, Hakaar the Destroyer  – and I’ve even started painting the damn Mammoth, a mere six months after the convention at which it was supposed to make its debut). Also, this miscellaneous lot here:

That’s Privateer Press Trollbloods (just the battle box, because I happen to like the models); Heresy Miniatures Zombies, Cultists, Blight, Flesh Golem and Werewolf (Blood Bowl team/WFRP encounters/Frostgrave warband); Wild in the Streets goth gang (only had those in the ‘to build’ pile for a year); SmogCon pirate captain.

Currently Reading – besides the rules for Dropzone Commander and Frostgrave, I’ve just reread Down and Out in Paris in London and Equal Rites. I keep looking with guilt at my non-fiction shelves and remembering how few of these books I’ve actually read cover-to-cover rather than raided for references at one time or another…

Currently Spending – more than I should, but I did make nearly £100 from flogging old Orks last week, so it’s fine. Nobody panic.

[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.