Classic RPG Review #8: Fantasy Wargaming

by Bruce Galloway, a.o.
1981 Patrick Stevens Ltd, Cambridge

First edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons looked like something you could delve from an antique bookshop. Fantasy Wargaming I actually did find among the occult books in a dusty corner of a second hand book store. And that's not all that strange. The small hardcover depicts an annoyed devil materializing from a spellbook, behind a hapless wizard doing some innocent research. And inside the book there are many entries about astrological signs, religion and the use of magic. So no wonder the bookseller placed it next to silly books like “the satanic bible”.

Fantasy Wargaming is not an occult book. But the game does try to approach medieval life as it was for real, or how it could have been for real. The first ninety pages or so are actually devoted to a description of medieval life, medieval warfare, theories of magic and religion and a medieval view of creatures. There is room for favorite fantasy authors and game mastering advice too. It's a treasure trove of information and inspiration. If you want to understand medieval life without earning a degree in history, then this is one of the best books to start with.

Only after this long “introduction” the game system is described. And its an intricate system, again aimed at simulating medieval life and medieval mores. A medieval life with magic, monsters and unholy temptations that is. It's still fantasy you know.

But the system is a tiny bit complex. The astrological birth sign of your hero influences his or her abilities and demeanor, for example. And each hero has statistics for strength, intelligence and piety, but also for lust, greed and selfishness. And these latter stats you don't want to be too high if you want to avoid the numerous temptations you'll face in adventures. All heroes also have one or more “bogeys”. These are uncommon good or bad quirks, whatever the dice decide: deafness, shyness, alcoholism, keen eyesight, bisexuality (yep), clairvoyance... Sometimes playable, sometimes not.

Combat rules actually are less complex than they seem. But they are written down in a complex way. All bonusses and penalties are hidden in paragraphs of text, and not shown in a few simple tables. It's a wargame, too. There are lists of typical medieval troops and rules for whole armies engaging in battle. Superfluous? Maybe. Not if you play an army commander.

The magic system is a beauty. It is written down in an inaccessible manner though, so I wonder what the writers tried to hide. Maybe it's the part where you can gain magic powers from sacrificing animals or even humans. You can also gain power from meditation, but hey. Once you have collected your power, called mana, you can cast your spell. And here you are almost totally free. You may make up effects of conjuration, evocation, protection, command, illusion, transmutation, divination – you name it.

Of course you have to take into account the astrological controllers. Aye, there's the rub. Crossindexing the right date and time, gemstones, herbs, metals and all what for your magic effect may be a bit cumbersome. It does look a lot more like alchemy and magic in the book. But in practice a game master may be too busy to take notice of your long study of the tables.
“So, you want a rhino bone wrapped in copper dowsed in full moonlight and virgin's blood?
Er... okay.” It takes effort to make this work.

Not only your physical constitution is important for survival. Certainly if you are a member of the clergy, you also have to watch your piety. Piety is lost for sinning, and some may be gained for resisting temptation. If your piety goes below zero, you may be excommunicated by the church, or worse: visited by the devil. The idea offers intriguing options for role playing, but the system unfortunately invites even more bookkeeping. And as you do not want to play Papers & Paychecks, that is not good.

Long lists of saints, demons, devils and pagan gods are provided, together with their areas of influence and areas of disfavor. This game dares to take a Christian stand – and the opposite stand too. Maybe that is why this game was hidden between the occult books.

In practice I found the rules too inaccessible to actually play. As a group we never tried to make heroes for this game and try an adventure. None is provided, so we would have had to make one up anyway. After the bestiary section the book just ends. Maybe that's a pity, as the book offers a huge amount of beautiful innovations.

Then again, to be honest, I took quite a few from its ideas and transformed them to my own game of Dark Dungeon. Playable or not, Fantasy Wargaming presents a milestone in fantasy role playing. Few games dare to use the Christian religion this boldly. And few games dare to leave magic effects so open to player creativity.

(rules are innovative, detailed, surprising and fairly realistic, but quite inaccessible)
(the first ninety pages present a good crash course in real medieval society, and the many tables of saints and magic tickle the creative soul)
(the game is more of a suggestion how fantasy role playing could be, than a playable game in its own right)
(“realistic” medieval fantasy, human based with Christianity and social standing taking a very central place, percentile based checks but with many modifiers based on many different factors, battle rules, a free form magic system allowing great freedom for magi, extensive rules for piety and temptation)



Pick #19: PDF Booklets

Have you ever downloaded a PDF, and wanted to print it like a real booklet? And then you found out the page order made no sense? And then you ended up cutting and pasting the whole thing or even worse, you gave up?

Wouldn't it be easy if there were a re-shuffle program, that re-ordered the pages in such a way that you could staple the pages in an A5-booklet?

Bookletcreator used to have an online service that did just that. And maybe they'll return it to us. In the meanwhile you can either buy their offline program (which is good). Or you can try this free program. Which also works well, even if it's less sophisticated. You'll need the microsoft .NET libraries to run either.

There, now you can finally print Santiago Joe as it was meant to be!


Movies for Gamers #5: Stardust

This is part of a series of reviews of movies particularly interesting or inspiring for role playing. Because of their setting, style, characters, editing or story. Read the introduction here or here if you are new to this series.

What happens when you let Neil Gaiman think up the story for a movie? Be sure it's dark, comical, and packed with surprises. And that's what Stardust is. It's also packed with special effects. Gaiman felt a bit guilty when he saw what he brought about by just imagining some odd things. It's quite different to dream up a skyship, or to actually have to build one. Even if it's only a mockup!

I'm not sure how it did worldwide, but in the Netherlands it was kind of lost between seasons. When it came out on DVD, it was straight into the low priced category.

Stardust deserved better, because it's magical, sweet and fun. Matthew Vaughn, who also was a producer on Snatch and Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels did a snappy job.

Yes, maybe lead player Charlie Cox isn't Brad Pitt – which may explain the lack of box office effect . His father in the film, Nathaniel Parker, surely has more sex appeal. But Cox plays his part with verve, and his transformation from newbie to a veteran adventurer is believable.

Claire Danes, who plays the literal Star Yvaine the movie Stardust is all about, plays beautifully. Especially her grimaces of disdain and disgust are a joy to watch. Evil prince Septimus played by Mark Strong is a wonderful bastard. And Michelle Pfeiffer is a great witch, enjoying her new found youth, which she hopes to prolong by sacrificing Yvaine. Hey, there even is a part for Peter O'Toole!

But the show is definitely stolen by Captain Shakespeare of the skies Robert De Niro. You have to see him do his thing in the mirror to believe it. And no, he isn't saying “are you talking to me?”

Stardust may be a bit too much of a straight fairy tale to be used in role playing. But you could tweak it a little and use quite a few of the characters and objects in the movie to enrich your campaign. Skyships, tubes with canned lightning, snakelike silver chains to bind people, magic candles to travel with, animated dead bodies, stardust...

And if your players saw it too, they'll know what you're talking about. Maybe they'll even smile, again. Like they did when watching.


Pick #18: Darths & Droids

If you have ever played Dungeons & Dragons - or Dark Dungeon 2nd Ed. - and at least have a working understanding of the Star Wars saga... then this webcomic is for you. Darths & Droids follows two players who play... Jedi knights - a young Obi Wan Kenobi and his master. Except - the players are obviously not aware of the Star Wars saga, but they are instead hard-core dungeon bashers. What the players say is put in text baloons above the photo's of the heroes - and what the hard pressed GM says is put in yellow baloons and squares.

Jedi Master: "All right! So who do we kill?"
GM: " You're first level. You're just here to negotiate."
Jedi Master: "I can't negotiate with a sword! I need a blaster!"

The players are real nerdy - like real life ones, sorry guys - and they help make up the universe as it goes along. Who'd have guessed that you could parry plasma bolts with your laser sabre because the players outgeeked the GM?

The seven makers of this parody are not as of yet affiliated with Lucasfilm, so they don't earn money with it - but they are at it for well over 400 strips. And they plan to do all of the movies - their way. The comic appears three times weekly - sunday, tuesday, thursday.

You don't even have to really like Star Wars - though it helps. How come I missed this? Just found it. And just had a lot of great snorts.


Pick #17: Star Wars Cops

Now I have had a look at the Star Wars RPG, I might also alert you to another golden oldy. Maybe you know it, but I'll chance that. It's really good.

Have you ever wondered how the first Star Wars story (I mean episode IV) looked from the Storm Trooper perspective? Have a look at Troops, and you'll know. It's like a reality show that follows the local police force (the Storm Troopers), who have to solve all sorts of trouble on the street. Or in the desert. See how they handle the Jawas that stole R2D2 and C3PO, or Luke Skywalkers godparents.

Director Kevin Rubio made so much fame with the parody that Lucasfilm asked him to do a comic for them. Lets just hope our boys in Iraq and Afghanistan weren't too much like the “everyday heroes” in his spoof...

And if you liked this... have a look at this list.


Classic RPG Review #7: Star Wars RPG

Star Wars, The Roleplaying Game
first edition hardcover
by Greg Costikyan
1987 West End Games

What Tolkien did for Fantasy, Star Wars in a way did for Science Fiction. Or Science Fantasy, more properly, because Star Wars is not exactly hard core Sci Fi, with it's religious Jedi knights waving their light sabres driven by the mystic “Force”. It's a special kind of Science, obviously. And maybe that is partly why the movies became such a phenomenon.

Ten years after the first movie (named part IV), the official Star Wars Roleplaying Game was a fact. A letter-sized hardcover, pleasant to hold, well bound with sixteen extra glossy pages in colour. It's made to be used, and to last nonetheless. And believe it or not, that also goes for the content of the game. It's a good game. And it even managed to keep the feel of the movies.

The book wastes little time on complex rules or exposees. Instead you are quickly invited to choose a hero template and modify it as you wish. You can choose to be a young Jedi, a smuggler, a native, or even a Wookie – although you have to say “ooaarggh” like a wookie and not sound lame. And there are plenty of other options. Statistics are already filled in, and all you have to do is choose a name, and distribute seven dice among your skills. And then you have to decide, together with the other players and the game master how your heroes know eachother. Player interaction is at least as important as statistics.

This game wastes no time on rules. The focus is on story telling and on role playing. Role playing as in play acting and “being” someone else for a while. Game master advice starts on page 29, and not somewhere as an afterthought. This game is closer to theater than to war gaming, and if you ask me that's good. Game introductions are adviced to be scripted in advance by the game master. Each hero is to say a line which conveys where we are and why. And then the game can start. My players are not too keen on having their lines written for them, but I've seen it work well for others. Its innovative at the very least.

The Force and the Dark Side are represented too, in the form of points. Force points allow you to do heroic things or save your ass. Dark side points you get for doing evil things. If you have too many dark side points your hero reverts to the game master. Playing evil heroes or villains is strictly verboten. It's a clear and moralistic choice. But to me it also feels chicken.

What I missed most though is the feel that you can really make a difference as a hero. It seems as if you may only move in the shadows of the demigod Skywalker and his father Vader. You can't do anything big, because that might change the big Star Wars story. And the Star Wars story is holy. So at best you can play the non-influential nephew of the sidekick of the sidekick of Han Solo, and nag endlessly about your insignificance. And since this is not a game about ants but about heroes, that feeling annoys me. So far it even kept me from actually playing more than a scene.

If you ignore the Star Wars canon, maybe. If you spin off your own version of its universe where your players can be the ultimate heroes. Where they can be the last of the last of the Jedi and change the walk of the universe, maybe then. Or maybe if they could play the Dark Side too. Then this good game could be a great game.

(rules are elegant, mostly simple, easy to learn, fairly realistic and fairly balanced, but detail sometimes lacks and many extra rolls are needed)
(the game is true to the Star Wars universe, which is a strong backdrop, and its advice to game masters and tips for role playing are abundant)
(the game is easy to learn, and fun to play, but you can't play Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader or make a real difference in the universe)
(science fantasy true to the earlier Star Wars movies, with humans, wookies and weird creatures, limited skill based with small pools of sixsided dice and bonusses, heroes made from modified templates, “the force” - a sort of magic – is available to some but bound to strict codes, if these codes are broken your hero reverts to “the dark side”)


Pick #16: The Eleventh Hour

As today is the day of the Armistice, the end of the Great War - the war that was supposed to end all wars and thus ended up as World War I - since it's today 102 years ago that it ended... I thought it would be interesting to see if there is a World War I role playing game.

Some searching does deliver quite a few wargames, an iPhone app that "features some rpg elements" (called 1951 - World War One, which looks cool), and some silly skills for WWI characters on a web forum. And there's this effort at online writing... at the Second Great War RPG. But I'm not even sure if it's the right war. That's how inside this looks to me. Or you could try this shockwave game Warfare 1917.

But it's still not what I mean. I mean a full fledged, paper and pen RPG. One where you could relive history as a fighter pilot, or in the trenches, or as a spy like Mata Hari. And maybe, just maybe, there would be ghosts there too. A friend once did a series of Call of Cthulhu games set in the trenches, and is was a wild succes. Imagine ghouls and Shoggoths crawling through the subterranean tunnels. The players even visisted some real Great War sites afterwards, because they were both intrigued and horrrified by what they learned in researching their games. It was a gruesome war. Like any war. But worse.

And still, the setting keeps calling. Maybe... just maybe, I should write a WWI RPG for myself. Someday. Beat me to it.

-  Pictures are part from the Imperial War Museum collection and Flickr Commons. Both are in the public domain and gratefully borrowed throughWikipedia.


Movies for Gamers #4: Blake's 7

Another favorite science fiction series of mine is Blake's 7. Made in the late 1970's and early 1980's by the BBC – by some of the same people who also did Dr. Who then. It follows the adventures of a group of rebels led by the escaped political prisoner Roj Blake, who by chance get hold of a very advanced alien ship: “The Liberator”. Four seasons long they try to stay ahead of the Federation, which much resembles a Thatcherite Imperial England gone haywire.

In fact, the very evil Federation is led by a woman (“Servalan”) who has more than a passing resemblance of the Iron Lady. Only her hairdo is a lot better. Short and black. Her one-eyed aide Travis, with his death-ray artificial hand, less caught my fancy, but he's okay too.

The special effects of Blake's 7 were below standard in its own day already. And so were the movie sets with wobbly chairs. Montage may also be to slow for today, and in the earlier episodes you can see how actors and writers are still searching for the right tone and tempo. So maybe as a modern viewer one needs to take a few steps back.

But many of the stories I think are still very good. Especially the cynical Avon, played by Paul Darrow, still impresses. He develops from Blake's most direct rival into his most fanatical disciple once Blake has gone in series three and four. It makes for a beautiful and gritty storyline. With lots of twists. Such as the one where Avon might throw his best friend Villa off the ship as excess weight. Or where a spark flies over between him and President Servalan.

All seasons are now available boxed in DVD. In my experience they are a good inspiration source for role playing adventures or even campaigns. Even if it's not science fiction. I even incorporated the secret base “Star One” from the series in my own fantasy universe. My players keep quoting Avon.

And maybe you just loved the series when you were a teenager, like me.


Pick #15: Free RPG Blog

Surely this is not the only role playing blog. There are quite a few others around. And very good ones too.

The Free RPG Blog of Rob Lang is one of those good ones. Rob used to be a proliferous writer, and I guess he will be again once his newborn start to sleep full nights. Figuring from the again increasing frequency of his posts, the kid sleeps better and better.

Rob has launched himself as a main protagonist of free role playing games on the internet. To help others write and publish more role playing games and stuff, and release these for free. He set himself to the task of reviewing as many free rpg's as he can. He did this on a weekly basis for well over a year – and now slightly less frequently. So he reviewed quite some.

The reviews are sweet, positive, inspiring, fun to read, and most of the time I end up downloading the games he picked. When Rob looks at the world there is a lot of good free stuff to be found. I am glad to say he also found Dark Dungeon.

And if that is not enough: Rob also organises competitions to write your own 24-hour role playing game. He administrates forae for a role play community. He writes the Icar RPG. And he's a father.

The only qualm I may have is that Rob does not actually play (most or any) of the games he reviews. He just reads the rules. He does that very well, and fair I think. But one still has to guess how playable a game really is in practice. Then again, if he really had to playtest, we'd have to pay and support the man to do this job full time!

Have a look at the Free RPG Blog. Browse it a bit. And be inspired to write your own game. Or test something you wouldn't have dreamed of.


Pick #14: I hit the Escapist with my Axe

Well, I hit on the Escapist by mouseclick, really. It's a web magazine for the gaming community, full of forums, columns, pro-gaming articles, movie reviews, game reviews, adds, more adds, and... gaming videos. And I don't mean game trailers. I mean true web movies. Weekly web movies. And another one every day of the week.

I already browsed over Doraleous in pick #12, but there are more. Many more. Not all as good, or as interesting. But worth a look. And that's probably the idea for the Escapist. To get as much traffic and public as possible. For the adds. For the industry. For the gamers. For the lobby groups. For the fun of it. Not necessarily in that order.

You know what? It works. The movie reviews are silly and zany, and ok. The Extra Credits video column about meta-gaming subjects, such as new laws coming up, or about the future of MMO's are quite informed, if not quite good. Rebecca Mayes is cute, musical and a bit weird. And so on.

But possible the strangest critter amongst the web movies is "I hit it with my axe". Which seems to be no more than a video log of a weekly role playing session. Which it is. But the players are female porn stars. No kidding. Sounds like marketing. Which it is. Sounds like "hey this is great, all those guys that can't find girls for their games - and here they are. And they're porn stars too! They'll watch that and drool all over the screen. Yeah.". Which it probably is.

Well... guys, these girls are just girls too. And it's just gaming sessions. So, you'll end up just watching someone else's slightly nerdy game. Which is... not your own game. So it's hard to follow and potentially boring. But hey, maybe there is hope, if even pretty adult movie actresses try to find an escape in some good ole role playin'.

Have a stroll at the Escapist. Just be back here before dinner.

Pictures borrowed under fair use policy from the Escapist magazine.


Avignon #3: The Napolis Connection

If you are new to this series, read this first. Play date: October 23 2010.

Lito looks at the graves in the crypt once more. Three virtually empty chests. Robbed quite recently by someone with a taste for holy bones. And a fourth chest with the body of St. Agneta. Agneta whose spirit is speaking to him. Lito decides to take the bones, and keep them safe. He collects them in his robe and leaves. Before someone else takes them.

Meanwhile Hieronimus and Colonel Eline hear how Peters from the secret service appear in the church above. They call down, to ask what they're doing there. “Will you come up, or do we go down to arrest you?” they shout. “Er, I was just helping out my client. He has kinky wishes, you see!” The Peters seem at a loss for words for a moment, but then they come down anyway. So, our three grave robbing heroes Lito, Eline and Hieronimus flee into the maze of catacombs for another way out. The Peters follow closely.

Not far from there, Schwartzburg and the Pope have another secret conversation. They talk about the problem of compound interest, and how compound interest now grows much faster than the real economy can grow. Which means that more and more people will drown in debt. Which may lead to war. The Pope actually listens. But also explains that the former Pope has borrowed a huge sum of money to build the Cathedral St.Peter, and that he cannot escape the interest on that loan without risking war with the Bishop of Mecklenburg and friends, who lent him the money. A tough situation.

You may find it strange that I run adventures with such diplomatic, economic talks. Sometimes my players wonder too. But the talks actually work. At least some of the players enjoy playing them – and are as intrigued as I am. Intrigued, because these are – simplified – real world situations. Real world now, and historic real world. The real life pope that built the Saint Peter actually did borrow money at interest, and he tried to raise it back by levying indulgences. Worse, he let real banker Fugger do the levying, at a 100% interest rate. While at the same time it was forbidden for Christians to ask interest. That's what real Martin Luther got so angry about.

Hieronimus falls down a shaft, and lands in the mud. And a dead body. It looks like a nun, with quite some money, and a ring of the Order of the Silver Dragon. Wasn't this order killed by the Witchmasters many years ago? This nun looks like she was alive a few days ago. The Peters close in and Hieronimus, Eline annd Lito have to leave. But they'll come back. Eventually they find a way out of the catacombs. Through the same church of Saint Mark where they freed Aster hours ago [see last episode].

So it looks like some Peters of Nicolas' secret service robbed the tomb of Saint Agneta and her friends – and killed a Silver Dragon nun in the process. The question is, whether Nicolas ordered this, or whether the Peters work for someone else on the side.

Our heroes hide from the Peters all night – and finally meet up the next day with a new contact. Notary Fritz Leiter. Right under the unsuspecting noses of the Peters, Schwartzburg, Eline, Hieronimus and Lito try to figure out with Leiter who is the real enemy. They decide to do three things.

The first is to try and smoke out the enemy. Hieronimus former contact James mysteriously died, so they'll have a look who is going to contact Hieronimus now. That might be the wrongdoer. A short comedy of errors follows, and Hieronimus is told he should contact agent Peter XIII. Suspect number one...

The second is that Schwartzburg is going for a long prayer. His patron saint Anthony may provide some knowledge. Schwartzburg has a vision of two candles leaning against eachother. The big candle is Nicolas, who is told things by the smaller one, who has something to do with Saint Francis. [As a game master you have to give visions a bit of colour, and a bit of mysticism.]

And the third – and I must say I was pleasantly surprised by the courage of Hieronimus' player – is that they would contact and confront Nicolas directly. They'd go and tell exactly what happened. How Hieronimus accidentally killed a fellow secret agent (a Peter), how they freed Aster, and that the Peters seemed to be robbing holy bones from a hidden tomb under the city. Holy bones one can use against Doomstone infections. Holy bones that are being stolen a whole campaign long.

So what has Nicolas to say for himself? Or for his Peters? Naturally I made it slightly hard on the players too, playing an annoyed Nicolas with a letter opener shaped as a dagger – for effect. But the players did very well. They actually made a case to Nicolas that his secret service was compromised, and that Cardinal Francisco Montecci – from Napolis – and Peter XIII might be running a private operation within the service. Nicolas will help them, for the time being, and run an internal affairs investigation on his own men.

To me, this kind of play is a quantum leap from the typical game. In a typical party the players would have run away by now, hiding from both the secret police and the criminals. Shooting both orcs and police on sight. Admittedly, in a typical game up to a few years ago, I wouldn't have done my best to embed the player characters in the society. Now I do. Hieronimus is a Papal secret agent – Nicolas is his ultimate chief. Lito is a Paladyn, so the Order of Paladyns would help him. Schwartzburg is the special envoy of the Bishop of Lorrach. Eline owns one of the few Doomstone mines. All players have their social stakes in the game, not just physical hit points or gold pieces to look out for. That makes a difference.

But I'm still very pleasantly surprised. Thanks Hieronimus!