Sunday, 31 January 2016

Dragon Rampant - second impressions

I realise that conventionally I should write about my first impressions first. But I was far too busy painting a couple of extra orcs for this game, so I'll have to get to that post later.

Having now played a game I have to say I'm really impressed. It's very quick to pick up and get the hang of, but under that simplicity there are enough subtleties that troop types seem to work as they should (although it's impossible to really tell from just one game), and tactical choices count. The dice do have a big impact, maybe slightly too much but again it's too early to really say.

Ahead of the game I'd read through the rules a couple of times, and drawn up a couple of warband options. All my co-conspirator (I won't call him an opponent, as it wasn't that sort of game!) had to go on was a brief flick through the book at the club the previous week and a few emails.

Arriving, selecting his warband, rolling for a scenario and dropping in some scenery took about an hour (bear in mind, this is from a standing start for him) and we were good to go. The first good point to mention here is how central the personality of the warband and the scenarios are for the game. Skirmish games (SAGA, Dux Britanniarum, and hopefully Dragon Rampant!) are popular at the club and all seem have the expectation of a scenario, so hopefully "line them up and knock them down" is on the wane... Anyway, the scenario was Death Chase - my orcs had been ambushed by some pesky elves.

From left to right I had some boar riders (heavy riders), orc warriors (light foot with Short Range Missiles), a shaman (heavy foot with Spellcaster), more orc warriors (heavy foot) and some archers (light missiles). Ambushing me were (top of picture) some mounted elves (light riders), elf archers (light missiles with Sharpshooter), an elf prince with his hangers-on, including a wizard (elite foot with Spellcaster) and some dryads (heavy foot).

We were a bit low on scenery, having skim-read the relevant section - the recommendation is for at least one piece per quarter of the table. One thing I would say about the rules is that they're a strange mixture of chatty and dense. On a first go through it's quite easy to miss fairly important points but it does set a much better tone than a more rules-centric approach might.

In the interests of simplicity we'd not used either Leader Traits or quests (boasts that you make prior to the game and which if met give extra glory points when deciding the winner). I'm looking forward to adding these in another time, as it seems they would really add to the personality of the warband as well as enhancing the game in terms of replayability.

About here is the point where I lost the game - my first turn -

For reasons I'm struggling to explain I decided to escape this ambush by getting the rough terrain (which doesn't block line of sight) between me and the archers while attacking the strong infantry elements head-on. As you'll see that didn't quite work out, but it is good to see that bad tactics are suitably punished.

A key mechanism in Dragon Rampant is the activation test - the player attempts to activate each of their units in turn, and when an activation fails that's the end of their go. Unit types have different activation scores for different actions - attacking, moving or shooting - which are often a measure of their quality or temperament. For example it's easier to activate Light Riders (mounted skirmishers) to move than it is for them to shoot, and more difficult again for them to attack.

This gives a slightly strange air to the game - the elves first turn stopped immediately when needing to roll 6+ on 2d6 the archers' activation failed, and it was then my turn. In fact, despite having a 70%+ chance of passing this roll it would be turn 4 or so before they fired (although by this stage they were always being activated last!). This seemed to slightly promote a devil-may-care attitude, as you know that any moment your plans may stop dead in their tracks, but it impacts both sides and turns come around quickly so it wasn't frustrating. I do enjoy games where command and control has an element of chance to it, I'm wondering though if it's dialled up slightly too high in Dragon Rampant.

This activation score is used quite broadly, for example heavy missiles (crossbows or muskets) have a high activation score for shooting to represent that they may still be reloading, and wizards a reasonably high activation score for spells. So where for example in Warhammer (at least in the editions I've played) magicians start out fairly likely to cast successfully but towards the end run out of juice, in Dragon Rampant they're a bit of a 50:50 bet all the way through. The sensible thing to do of course is to activate them last, but sometimes tactically you want them to go first (e.g. buff a unit and then have it attack, or blast an enemy unit then charge the battered remnants), but this doesn't always work out -

Snake eyes - my attempted Power Bolt! at the dryads fizzles
The good thing though is that it means there are very few mechanics in the game, which makes it very easy to pick up. After a first turn and a couple of combats we were relying on the A4 rules reference sheet almost exclusively, and the game ticked along nicely.

The other key mechanic is the Battered status and the Courage test. Here my boar riders had become Battered after a bruising charge into the buffed dryads -

Once a unit is Battered it must always take a rally test before anything else happens, and even if it passes can then take no further activation that turn. I was lucky here - the riders passed their test, and my wizard was able to heal them back up to full strength before the dryads were able to attack. My one success of the night was to severely wound that unit (with my riders reduced to 1/3 strength in the process), the dryads then repeatedly failed their own rally test and fell further and further back for the remainder of the game. The courage / rally test becomes progressively harder as a unit is damaged, and failed tests result in a further loss of a strength point as demoralised troops slip away from the battle. At some point the test is failed entirely and the unit routs from the table (as happened to my own archers early on in the game, and my heavy foot after taking sustained missile fire for most of the battle).

A few last points that seem worth a mention -

Units are sized in the game by strength points - cavalry having 6 and most infantry having 12. A key facet of this is the concept of the reduced or single model unit - my wizard being one such, the idea being that his magic gives him enough strength and protection in combat that he fights like 12 men. As well as powerful characters this can also be used to field trolls and so on, where you might have a unit of 3 each representing 4 of those strength points. However strength is a bit of a misnomer (at least to me) - whether having 6 or 12 strength points units roll 12 dice when shooting or attacking if over half strength, and 6 if at half strength or fewer. Strength points more accurately are hit points - cavalry and the low strength infantry units hit hard, but are rather more fragile than the standard infantry units.

Armour makes a big difference in the amount of damage a unit takes when being shot or attacked. My heavy infantry lasted a fair while when taking punishment from two missile units - but was eventually whittled down (good Courage also helping with this).

With both players having been "brought up" on Warhammer it seemed slightly odd (though not necessarily bad) that the orcs and elves essentially fought as equals. If you want to model say elf light infantry being better in a fight than orc light infantry there are plenty of ways to do so. What there's not however is a way of saying that some species are better disciplined and more likely to be well led. You can see how this might be done - for example elite riders have a special rule of "Wild Charge" (if they can attack a unit they probably will), with an option available (Level Headed) to negate this rule and also make them easier to activate for a move. You could add in a house rule of "Well Led" for a blanket improvement in activation scores, but it's hard to know what to cost this at for a given improvement. Also, given the low costs of units (e.g. heavy infantry are 4 points) any upgrade will by definition be a big percentage of that cost and so need to be significant to justify it.

In summary my first game of Dragon Rampant was thoroughly enjoyable, seemed to do a good and simple job of running a fantasy skirmish, and (once we got started) played through in about 1½ hours. I prefer the paperback but the PDF is less than £10. Highly recommended!

Saturday, 23 January 2016

First finished figure of the year

Arguably one of my first truly finished figures since I took up this hobby again - he's properly based, varnished and everything...!

It might seem from that that I'm on for an even worse "painted" count than last year, but I've been putting bits and pieces of colour on several of his warband as well, so things are progressing.

In last night's game of SAGA for the first time ever my warlord didn't die, so maybe I'm slightly getting my head around how to play - although the winning warlord is now feasting in Valhalla along with his entire warband, so maybe not!

Next week it looks like I'm going to get a chance to try out Dragon Rampant, so the focus might switch back to orcs for a bit.

Friday, 1 January 2016

My 2015 - hobby review

The second half of 2015 didn't go quite as hoped for me from a hobby perspective, but fortunately looking at the year overall is a somewhat rosier picture.


The highlight of the year for me was BOYL, and within that (amongst lots of other good stuff) the Fallout / Rogue Trader game.

So I thought I should review that aspect first, and actually things were pretty good -

  • The aforementioned BOYL, and especially my caravanners' outing there, was about the perfect gaming experience
  • Back in May I had a great day chaos warband-ing with a fine bunch of Oldhammerers
  • As hoped I spent a bit more time at my local club and got drawn into SAGA amongst other things
  • And in October I got to visit Tékumel courtesy of Barry Blatt

There's always room for improvement, especially in the quantity of gaming, but on the quality front it was spot on. 8/10


Actually things aren't so bad here, if I take the long view -

  • Inspired by the guide over on Lead Plague I finally made myself a wet palette, and they really are as game-changing as I'd read repeatedly that they were.
  • As a result my blending has greatly improved - the wet palatte making the mechanical aspect almost trivial, and my technique is getting better with practice. Still no where near some of the beautiful work I see out on various blogs, but maybe 10 years from now...
  • On the volume front the year was a bit of a failure though. Depending on how I count my progress with the Vikings I've done about 24 models for the year, or 4/10 of my target

Purely on the quantity front I was going to give myself a much lower score, but allowing for the first two points that would seem a bit harsh. But the second half of the year was seriously unproductive, and my colour mixing often doesn't result in what I had in my mind's eye (although that too is improving). 5/10


I'm thinking I should drop the collecting category - in a way I now think of it as "increasing my list of things still to paint"! But for the sake of the review -

  • The hobgoblin thing didn't get very far. I basically want to create a force of Fantasy Tribe hobgoblins, without paying through the nose on eBay. And unfortunately FT hobgoblins don't really look like anything else. My current conclusion is that it'll require a fair bit of converting (and hence time), and between the time factor and the draw of the Fallout game I shelved my plan to get these ready for BOYL, since which they've been firmly on the back burner. File as a project for some day...
  • I've also not yet had the One Ring come to the top of my acquisition list

Score: 1/10


I was no where near my target here - a bit more variety early on, but decidely thin on the ground throughout. I have plans here for the coming year, but the limiting factor will always be time / priorities. I am finding it really useful though to look back and see the journey. 3/10

Reading list - 2015

The Weird of the White Wolf - Michael Moorcock

The Elric novels are really quite short (this one being three novellas plus a prologue in 155 pages), so I really should be making my way through them faster than I am. Individually they're all very readable but they're just not gripping me in a way that reflects their importance in both fantasy writing and gaming circles.

I'm slowly getting a sense of Elric's world, which is very much one of uninhibited imagination, and not something that unfortunately seems to happen much in modern fantasy. Tolkein's ascendancy, and perhaps the introduction and influence of RPGs, seems to have made careful worldbuilding the norm, and perhaps something has been lost as a result. In many ways in a world (or universe) sense these books are more in tune with space opera than mainstream fantasy, and that's no bad thing.

The Vanishing Tower, The Bane of the Black Sword, Stormbringer - Michael Moorcock

It could be said that I'm getting lazy in my reviewing, or I could argue that the books are better viewed as a whole! Either way, I'll try and wrap up the last three books in the core of the Elric saga in one.

The saga to me only really finds its place when Theleb K'aarna takes centre stage as the main villain. It might be that Yyrkoon isn't really up to the job, or it might be that with Yyrkoon as the villain then it's still all about Elric, and hence rather too introspective. For a while this brings us a fairly rarified view of the Young Kingdoms, as two of the most powerful sorcerors of the age clash across various realms - for a while this was a setting I could really see myself enjoying.

Eventually K'aarna is defeated and Jagreen Lern sort of becomes the villain, though really at this point Moorcock switches from epic saga to a very wide-angle cosmic struggle as Chaos tries to assert itself completely on Elric's plane. For me the story became too distant to enjoy, or even get much out of. Armies are destroyed and countries revert to the raw stuff of chaos, and the books become an idea rather than a story. Fortunately for me I live on a plane where 50 years of games and books have been written on these foundations, however I've come to the original after the event rather than before and so a lot of the value is lost to me.

So, for the story and ideas in the first two thirds of the saga, well worth a read (the story itself perhaps 3/5, but scope and breadth of ideas a clear 5). Overall I'm glad to have read it, in a way as a box-ticking exercise although that does it a massive injustice, but mostly I'm glad that it was written for everything that has come after.

Moon over Soho - Ben Aaronovitch

Good, but not really up to the standard of the first. To be expected in a way, the first was opening up a whole new fiction, while this is filling in some gaps and adding some depth the ground has already been broken. The plot is interesting enough, but seems to have more of an eye on the next in the series than really trying to deliver a punch - after the first I spent the whole book looking for the twist in the tale and was still left wanting at the end.

A good read happily consumed, that it seems a bit of a letdown is more to do with the strength of the first in the series rather than any weakness with this.

When Gravity Fails - George Alec Effinger

I bought this many years ago, I assume because of its place in Cyperpunk 2020's "appendix N" but didn't get very far with it at the time. 20+ years later and with rather broader horizons I enjoyed it, but equally due to the passage of time it's lost some of the ground-breaking quality which made it so highly regarded.

It's fascinating to see aspects of cyberpunk translated to an un-named Middle Eastern city with an Algerian hustler as the protagonist rather the high-tech US and Far Eastern cities we're used to seeing. The plot is satisfying enough, although without quite the tension I imagine was meant to be generated towards the end.

To me one of the most impressive aspects was how true the protagonist was to himself rather than beng a vehicle for the plot, and how well such an unfamiliar setting is conveyed. If it has a weakness it's that the impact on society of moddies and daddies - personality-altering technology - is never fully explored.

The Last Light of the Sun - Guy Gavriel Kay

I really enjoy what I've read of Kay's history-inspired fantasies. This one combines Celts, Vikings, sidhe and King Alfred to good effect, not only giving an emotive, deep and believable viewpoint of three cultures but importantly set into a good story with some great twists. The only downside being that I felt the need to make notes while reading it for further research later, so slowing me down, which can't really be blamed on the author!

Thoroughly recommended.

The Whale Road - Robert Low

Really very good - I'd add this to the "read this, then run a Viking campaign" list. A very convincing view into the world of the Vikings - you get the feeling that Robert Low has done his research, which he shows off with his narrative without force-feeding it to the reader. The protaganist, Orm, starts off wide-eyed and naive, and so is a great conduit for this early on. One of my few critisisms of the book is that he seems to grow in compentance rather too quickly, which makes the ending a bit less believable, but this doesn't really detract from the book. And it also sets us up nicely for the next in the series, which I'll be buying in the near future.

One other minor critisism is that there's clearly a point towards the end of the book where Orm is protected by nothing other than plot armour, but I'm prepared to let this go with just a raised eyebrow. And my last quibble is how far-sighted Orm is at times. The book is told as a memoir, so it's fair that it can be narrated with a wisdom beyond what he probably had as a raw youth, however you sometimes feel the advantage of the author's extra thousand years of perspective more than you probably should.

Back onto the good stuff - as well as a sense of the physical place and time that the Vikings lived and fought through, there's a real sense of the spiritual place. The characters emphatically believe in their gods and portents, and so fit into their world absolutely. Definitely some lessons in there for roleplayers from a more cynical (or wiser?) age. And in the interests of keeping this short one last highlight that I'll mention is how it makes you realise what an interesting (and overlooked, at least when I was at school) period of history this is. There's the conflict between Christianity and older religions, the sheer size and importance of Byzantium, and eastern Europe isn't just a series of invaders from further east (although equally those were significant factors in their history).

To end with my favourite quote, from Orm's first voyage (with the crew carefully avoiding the coast of Wessex) - "... we kept to the solitary inlets and lit fires only when we were sure there was no one for miles. Nowhere was safe for a boatload of armed men from the Norway viks". Who wouldn't want to play in that campaign?!

The Man of Gold - M.A.R. Barker

I sort of see what all the fuss is about - Tekumel is a breath of interesting and alien air. It has that same feeling of somewhere you'd like to find out more about that Middle Earth exudes, but can be hard to grasp at times as well. In a strange way this is a credit to Barker as a novelist - he introduces people, creatures and gods by showing rather than explaining, but with the sheer volume of these, and their unfamiliar names, its rather hard to keep track of.

A few quibbles - because that's the sort of reader that I am...

Given that most of the reason Harsan's the centre of the plot is the ancient knowledge imparted to him early in the story, it's rather unsatisfying that in the end he is reliant on a massive coincidence / plot device.

Also given the prestige and enormous riches that tomb raiding can bring it's rather hard to accept that the slum-dwellers who live practically on top of such a resource could be prevented mostly by social mores (even in such a hidebound society) from making an industry of it. Instead they just dabble enough to help the plot along.

With iron being rare and valuable - as in Kelewan (which was apparently modelled on Tekumel) - why aren't weapons made primarily of bronze, or why haven't alternatives such as stone impact weapons found a niche? Instead they make swords out of leather... I get that swords are cool, especially if, as with Feist and Wurts, you're writing about pseudo-Samurai, but this really jars with me (maybe it's that degree in Materials Science). According to Jeff Dee's Béthorm cured Chlén hide "has the hardness almost of aircraft plastic". That just doesn't cut it (pun intended, sorry!). I'm not having a go at Jeff here, this is the source material he's working with, it's just I happen to have his very comprehensive work as a reference point.

A good and horizon-expanding novel, and I'll be seeking out the follow-up Flamesong at some point fairly soon. But it'd have been better still with some footnotes.

Plague Daemon - Brian Craig

Prompted by Orlygg's book club plan I picked up a copy of Plague Daemon - it's OK, but not a patch on its predecessor. It has its moments, and there are some good smatterings of grim - Humbold's fate being one such - but the Border Princes aren't really somewhere you'd live by choice and Harmis is a far less engaging protagonist than Orfeo was in the first book.

It's also a bit clumsy in places - having established that Harmis isn't the chatty type he then launches into some lengthy dialogues early on for the sake of exposition, and having further established that users of magic are not trusted his companion Averil then rides past crowds of terrified refugees while waving around a magic glowing stick without any apparent negative reaction...

Overall though it does a good job of conveying the setting, and is an readable if not compelling journey through what was (at the time) an interesting but fairly neglected area of the Old World (meriting a bare half page in the WFRP rulebook) and gives a new slant on Nurgle and the followers of chaos more generally (spoiler - there's a plague deamon in the story!).

I'm left hoping the third in the trilogy is better.

The Pagan Lord - Bernard Cornwell

I picked this up on a whim at my local library and was glad I did. I wouldn't rate it quite as highly as The Last Light of the Sun or The Whale Road, but it may just be that I need a break from Saxons and Danes. The sense of place doesn't come across quite as well as in those two novels, but Cornwell can really write. Halfway through the book the narrator attacks Bebbanburg (his ancestoral home, from which he's been dispossessed). You know he's not going to die, there being half a book to go, but I could barely turn the pages for the tension.

Some useful gameable themes come through - the wildness (emptiness) of even a fairly populated corner of Europe, meaning that a few boatloads of armed men can set them selves up somewhere out of the way and be fairly safe. Equally a hundred or so armed men can ride through fairly heavily populated country and as long as they keep moving aren't going to be bothered.

And also (again) the themes of reputation, and the ability to say "fight me, or do what I say". But conversely the difficulty of getting a modern, worldly gamer to really react in the character of the time. Will they know the culture enough to challenge to Holmgang on the spur of the moment, or go to their certain death with only one care - to not lose grip on their sword?

It's also interesting to read the actual history of the time after reading the book (fairly superficially, Wikipedia in this case). The official accounts go "the king did ..." but actually it's quite plausible that, as in the book, a thegn with a reputation and agenda of their own did a thing, if it works then the history books give credit where the scribe feels is politic, if they fail then it's on their own head.

As I was reading I gathered the impression that it was a part of a series, due to the frequent references to backstory. It turns out to be the seventh of the Saxon Stories. I'm glad to have picked this one up rather than an earlier one, as it deals with the much less well-trodden story of the time after Alfred. I can't see myself going back to read the first six, but may well look out for the next.

The Gift of Rain - Tan Twan Eng

Humm, what to say about this one? Perhaps to start with that for the second half at least I found it hard to put down, which has to be a recommendation. Also that I clearly need to read more from non-Western authors (especially with my ongoing interest in Tekumel - on the subject of which it was interesting to note that clan houses make a passing appearance here), a lot of what I've read recently has been rather too far inside my comfort zone, this was in many places a fascinating breath of fresh air.

The story can be viewed on a couple of levels, the first as a memoir of the Japanese occupation of Malaysia during WWII from the point of view of a privileged (but compromised) civilian. As such it's educational from a cultural point of view, less so from a historical point of view and not too grim reading (on my personal scale where Stalingrad is an 11 this is probably a 4). It is very downbeat though, Philip's view back on his life is not exactly happy, although longer and less miserable than it might have been!

On a further level the book delves into the spiritual side of martial arts and the past lives of Philip and Endo-san. I found this oddly jarring - while I felt that a similar presenting-as-fact the mystical side of Guy Gavriel Kay's version of Byzantium added to those novels, here it seemed out of place, I think because The Gift of Rain is set so much closer to the present. But the same justification exists in both instances: people did (and still do) believe in the world as presented here so it's really my own issue as a reader than any problem with the novel.

There were a few other places where my suspension of disbelief was challenged. Firstly the question of whether Philip really could have lived 50+ years on Penang after the war (although this contradiction is presented front-and-centre a few times in the book, so I really should go along with its version of things). Secondly, the youth of the narrator during the main events of the book - Philip's in his mid-to-late teens as the book begins and so his early 20s as the war ends. However other than the earliest scenes there is no real sense of his age, despite the fact that it must be relevant to his actions and how he is viewed. This again may be my comfortable 21st Century point of view - as Philip himself points out he's older than a lot of the Allied troops who eventually liberate Penang. Or equally it may be that, with the memoir narrated by Philip in his 70s, that sense of youth is blurred or forgotten.

Anyway, well worth a read, and to me a reminder to broaden my horizons.