Tuesday, 28 February 2017

The ox with a rocks in a box - some GMing lessons learnt

On Friday we had another Oldhammer get-together which I was privileged to GM. Rather than do a report I wanted to make a note of the lessons I learnt in the process but fear not, there's a report from the half-orc point of view on the Oldhammer forum.

My main conclusions are perhaps obvious in hindsight -
  1. The players only know what's in their briefing, and have fairly blunt tools with which to learn more
  2. They also don't know what not to worry about
  3. The players will do the completely unexpected
  4. Prepare for what-ifs (as far as you can)
  5. Preview (and if necessary mildly tweak) player-selected forces

My starting point was that I had three forces to cater for: some half-orc mercenaries (who were more interested in the looting than the fighting side of their profession), undead and beastmen. We were aiming for 750 points each roughly from the 3rd edition Warhammer Armies allies or mercenaries lists, although these were more of a starting point than a hard and fast rule.

Three-way conflicts are tricky to set up, with the main solutions being that everyone wants the same thing (the Vengeance of the Lichemaster approach) or a triangular affair. The latter seems slightly less forced to me - although it's very handy that everyone turns up to sort out their differences at just the same time! I feel though that I came up with a good-enough justification for this...

So my basic premise was this:
  • The half-orcs have been hired to guard a sorceror who's on his way to a tor where magic is particularly strong, carrying some heavy artefact (with the help of an ox)
  • The beastmen want to kill the sorceror
  • The necromancer is near the tor for his own reasons, and decides to get involved
And on a slightly more detailed level:
  • The half-orcs' primary objective is to survive, ideally getting some loot in the process and without completely destroying whatever reputation their mercenary company has. They know that the sorceror they're guarding seems weakened (but in hindsight should have known more)
  • The necromancer knows that magic is strong near the tor and also that there's some sort of spirit tied to the tor. He believes that enough bloodshed near the tor will enable him to release or summon the spirit
Or at least that's what I thought would happen...

The initial setup has the sorceror, ox and half-orcs approaching the tor (from the top of the photo) as the undead arrive from their right. The table edge on the right hand side of the shot is marshy and impassable.

Lesson one: the players don't know what the GM knows (which after all, is kind of the point!). But unlike with an RPG, where you get the chance to drop increasingly unsubtle clues, anything which isn't made explicit to the players will probably remain unknown: they're too busy focusing on the tactical situation as they see it, and a wargame doesn't really provide the tools for investigation. "Me and my warband are going to go and talk to that other warband" doesn't often happen (although perversely it did in this battle!).

Lesson two: players don't know what not to worry about (also pointless GM backstories are largely pointless).

I have a mild loathing of GM PCs, in RPGs and wargames. They're especially troublesome in the latter where they call into serious question the GM's impartiality. Nevertheless I'd included Peelbone the sorceror in the scenario and was running him myself, as having the half-orcs control him would have unbalanced things too much. He was a powerful-ish sorceror (in order to give him enough wounds to keep things interesting), but with a fairly weak and situational selection of spells. In addition he starts the game with only 6 magic points.

To go more into the backstory (as it's the only chance I get!) also unbeknownst to the players Peelbone doesn't really know what the McGuffin is or what it does, having acquired it from his former mentor as the latter slipped into insanity (being betrayed and murdered by your protégé practically counts as natural causes amongst chaos sorcerors, surely?). He believes that if he energises it near the tor (via the demonology Summon Energy spell) it will summon a powerful demon which he'll be able to control.

The first turn saw Peelbone's familiar (who's reduced to ox-handling duty) take the ox towards the tor and unload its burden, with Peelbone seeming unfazed by the approach of the undead. The undead shamble forward at which point the beastmen arrive -

Peelbone is somewhat more concerned about the beastmen (I'm assuming he recognises them and knows they're out to kill him - he must have good eyesight!), and orders the half-orcs to deal with them. At this point I'm starting to refer to Peelbone and the half-orcs as "us", which causes the odd raised eyebrow from the other players. I know I can trust me, but they don't...

On his next turn Peelbone calmly casts Summon Energy, and all the factions see a swirling mist appear which is drawn partly into Peelbone, and partly into the McGuffin. On the one hand hopefully this worries them slightly, but on the other hand it probably also has them muttering to themselves about GM PCs... The undead and beastmen continue to advance, with the half-orcs turning to deal with the beastmen.

Lesson three: no scenario survives contact with the players. Given the half-orc backstory and the stacked odds against them, at this point they were meant to start worrying primarily about their own skin. But instead they got all professional...! Also the necromancer wants stuff to die near the tor so should have been backing off and letting the beastmen approach, but fascinated by the two-headed ox he was instead determined to take possession of the bundle it was carrying and so raced forward (or at least as fast as his force could shamble).

Peelbone now works out that the McGuffin doesn't do what he thinks, or at least something has gone wrong, so starts trying to save his own skin while keeping possession of the ox and the McGuffin (which his familiar now loads back onto the ox). He casts Cause Panic on the centaurs (as the fastest and hence most immediate threat) - they fail their willpower test but pass the panic test with flying colours.

Lesson four: think through what might happen. The necromancer, moving rapidly forward, casts Fire Ball at Peelbone. And is close enough to the tor for it to be twice as powerful as normal - Peelbone is toast. I was quite glad to see this on the one hand any concerns about GM PCs evaporate, but on the other hand it's part way through turn 3 and the beastmen's objective has gone up in smoke...

Fortunately the beastman general decides there's killing to be done so carries on regardless and from here we got into a fun little game. The necromancer was determined to take possession of the McGuffin (and is delighted to find out that it's a rock in a box carried by an ox, but somewhat unsure what to do with a large, heavy, rune-inscribed rock), while the half-orcs try a mixture of delaying, fighting and negotiating with the beastmen, hoping for reinforcements to help avenge their former employer.

I had plenty to do as a GM as in this sort of open game situations crop up which aren't covered by the rules, or which the rules don't allow but which seem reasonable under some circumstances. For example the half-orcs beat back a charge from the beastmen and then wanted to push them back without following up - for a second chance at negotiation, hopefully this time with a bit of stick to go with the carrot. By the book this isn't an option, but I allowed it on condition of a leadership check (to keep the victorious side in check).

Lesson five: balance player's freedom to chose their force with a bit of oversight (and know in advance what they're going to bring). This didn't have any real impact on the game but I now remember this tripping me up once in the past, and it also left a couple of oddities this time around. The first oddity was that the half-orcs had a shaman, and so should have known a bit about the McGuffin and one of its effects, but I didn't know this in advance and wasn't prepared for it. The second oddity was that the beastman leader had the attributes of Cowardice (fear) and Manic Fighter (hatred) - it made for some fun situations in the game, but probably isn't a sensible combination for the leader to have. In future I think I'll generate attributes ahead of the game.

My other, slightly depressing conclusion is that as well as all of the forces I need to be painting (chaos, orcs, vikings, dwarves) I also need a few oddities and objective markers to add flavour to scenarios. My two-headed ox from BOYL '15 added immeasurably to this game, and there were several other bits and bobs I could have done with for this time around, or will need if we take this story forward. There's never enough painting time...

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Thinking about Warhammers while reading Wolf Hall

I recently read Wolf Hall, partly because it's well regarded and I needed something to read but mostly because it's mainly set from 1520 to 1535, or about the time that a bunch of ne'er-do-wells are getting caught up in goings-on at the Schaffenfest in Bögenhafen. It seems well-researched but, even if not, it's plausible enough to be taken at face value, especially as my primary interest is for insights for an RPG set in a fictional, historical-ish world.

I'm not sure what themes Mantel was hoping to bring to the fore when she was writing the novel but to me a number stand out -
  • The functioning of power
  • The role of religion (clearly a major theme of the book, and of the time)
  • Status, class and wealth
  • The emergence of modernity
  • The medieval family 


 The functioning of power

This is central to the book, given the viewpoint is that of Thomas Cromwell who rises to become Henry VIII's chief minister. But the key point is that all power comes either from the King, or the Pope (although some claim to be servants of God) with nothing by way of checks or balances other than "what will other kings think" (e.g. if you de-throne their niece) or "what does God think". Being human that source of power is rather arbitrary, especially when (depending on how charitably you look at things) they're a man in their late 30s / early 40s with a roving eye or a king with no heir whose father siezed the crown on the battlefield (or both!).

First Cardinal Wolsey and then Thomas Cromwell gain tremendous power and wealth by gaining the ear of a king who's prepared to delegate, but having gained that ear he still needs to be treated with kid gloves. Both are clearly very able men, one being the son of a butcher who's risen to become the preeminent churchman in the realm, the other the son of a blacksmith who's become a successful lawyer and investor. Being close to even a fickle source of power they almost can't help but enormously enrich themselves, with all sorts of people just wanting to shower them with gifts for some reason, while the king is also awarding them propery, incomes and titles.

I'm not quite sure how to take stock of this in game terms, and am not at all comfortable with the idea of a game with the players functioning at these sorts of levels. Nightmare GM pretty much describes both how the game would need to be played and how it would seem - not a fun prospect.

So I think the take-home needs to be not to even think of the term "power" without the modifier of "fickle".

The role of religion

There are two connected religious developments which are highly significant for Cromwell and his peers - firstly Henry's desire to break from Rome and hence grant his own divorce (and handily also get hold of those taxes which would otherwise go to the Pope) and also the stirrings of Protestant reform and in particular the forbidden tome that was Tyndale's Bible.

There are two aspects to this which I struck me as eminently gameable -
  1. The absolute belief in God
  2. Heresy
On the first point you have a king who's trying to divorce his queen, and nobles who are trying to dispose of a cardinal who's displaced and undermined them, and in both cases one of their major concerns is "what will God think?".

From a secular modern perspective this absolute belief has always been the hardest part of a game for me to "get", and in most game settings it's even more important than it was historically given that, in the words of the great Terry Pratchett, the gods have "a habit of going round to atheists' houses and smashing their windows". Why do players very rarely seem to give as much weight to the gods as their historical or fictional counterparts would?

This leaves me wondering whether some sort of mechanical impact of divine disfavour is needed, not just for cleric types but for anyone. Perhaps (for minor disfavour) once per day a successful roll is converted to a fumble (the player gets to chose which roll). For severe disfavour, who knows?

On the heresy front it seems to me that the Warhammer world is missing several tricks. After all, what could be more WFRP than this Wolf Hall quote - "They have their old bones, their glass saints in windows, their candles and shrines, but God has given us the printing press"? In Warhammer of course you have witch hunters and rumours of forbidden gods, and more openly the rivalry between Ulric and Sigmar, or the displacement of the Old Faith by newer gods. But what's entirely lacking (as far as I've seen) are struggles within the following of a particular god, which is both far more interesting than the chaos / not chaos choice but probably also rather vicious.

The two heresies we see in Wolf Hall are Lollardy and Tyndale's Bible - heretical primarily because they undermined the authority of the Catholic church but also in the case of Lollardy being seen as a threat to the establishment more generally. Given how close it is to the establishment in The Empire I think some heretical beliefs about Sigmar are called for...

Status, class and wealth

Part of what makes the Renaissance interesting as a setting is the emergence of the merchant class and how this plays upon the gulf between the nobility and the commoner. But the gulf is still very much there.

Henry VIII is notable for advancing people based on merit, but both Cromwell and Wolsey are commoners in a courtiers' world. Cromwell and his merchant friends are in many cases significantly more wealthy than the nobles they interact with, with at least one noble being heavily in debt to them. But the nobility have status and, equally importantly, heritage. The word of the son of a blacksmith is worth very little, but even physical evidence doesn't stand up particularly well to the friendships that the nobles have nurtured from a young age, or the fact that their grandfathers fought together on some battlefield long ago.

Couple this with the gentry being concious of their relative loss of status and these elevated commoners are on oncomfortable ground.

The emergence of modernity

Another aspect which makes the Renaissance a refreshing change from the pseudo-medieval setting of most RPGs is the emergence of recognisably more modern elements of architecture and culture. The elite are now building palaces rather than castles (Mantel suggests that one reason Henry was keen to reduce Wolsey in status is so that he can claim Hampton Court Palace for Anne Boleyn) and gentlemen are laying out impressive gardens and worrying about the cultivation of strawberries. As a GM you can mix in a dash of costume drama into the grim dark.

The medieval family

The family though is still thoroughly medieval - there's a high mortality rate and a lot of interdependence. Cromwell's wife and daughters die of sweating sickness when he's in his mid-forties, while his nephew Richard Williams adopts the Cromwell surname and prospers as much as Cromwell's own son thanks to Cromwell's favour from the king.

Cromwell also gains a wide variety of hangers-on, running a large household and having minor gentry "apprentice" their sons to him in the hope of them learning his knack for making incredible amounts of money, while Mantel also speculates at various wardships. Certainly his household is exceptional in some ways, considering both his humble beginnings and the high status to which he arises, but the complex, fascinating and slightly melancholy picture which emerges is hopefully one that will stay with me and enhance my game worlds.

And finally...

Most of the way through the book WFRP was at the front of my mind but it belatedly occured to me that it was also saying something about Warhammer 40K, and probably other sci-fi settings as well. In a dystopian future the messages about the fickleness of how power is gained and exercised, as well as in the importance of status and how it influences or limits people's rise and hastens their fall are well worth bearing in mind.