Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Rogue Stars - Antagonist Squads & Nova Troopers

Coming up with a backstory for the Loor Scouts from CP Models got me to thinking about the Lurker/Threshold mechanic from Strange Aeons. You can check out my overview of that game here but the relevant part is, one player controls the protagonist warband, made up of Characters that develop over a campaign, while the other player controls the baddies, which are just one-off warbands written up for that particular scenario. The occasional Strange Aeons villain - called a Nemesis - can level up and otherwise develop just like the protagonists do. But for the most part, bad guys are there to fight and be fought.

In the spirit of adventure sci fi, where dashing (anti-) heroes regularly blast through scores of nameless mooks, the same kind of idea could apply to Rogue Stars. The Loor Scouts, for example, are great one-off antagonists. There are any number of reasons they might be after your squad: Did a deal with the Triad go sour? Perhaps your Space Cops have been ordered to bring them in? Or maybe it's just one of those troublesome misunderstandings that happen so frequently in busy spaceports? They can be dropped into a campaign as mysterious assassins, ruthless pursuers, or plain old thuggish nobodies. This could eventually become another scenario table for Rogue Stars - roll for which Antagonist Squad you'll be facing. But if I'm going to get to that point, I will need a few more potential entries.

Nova Troopers

"Nova" is the generic name for several branded security personnel system packages. Smaller corporations and even cash-strapped governments buy these packages to meet their paramilitary-level operational security needs. Despite a wide variety of detail-oriented brand differences, "Nova" product systems all have two features in common.

First, these systems use a tiered training regimen. Customers pack off one of their own employees for a period of training by the vendor corporation and, for a discount to the package price, a combat assignment subcontract with the vendor. If the trainee survives the subcontract assignment, he will return to instruct his original employer's other security personnel, for each of whom that employer must purchase a license from the training vendor. The vendor-trained employee is then placed in command of his own trainees.

Second, the vendor supplies arms and armor. Initial and continuing training is tailored to the vendor's branded equipment although in reality the differences across brands are fairly superficial. "Nova Troopers" are instantly recognizable throughout the galaxy thanks to their aggressive-looking blasters and distinctive combat armor. The armor itself is essentially a cheap alternative to real powered armor: a self-contained, miniaturized exoskeleton-driven battlesuit that provides solid protection but is susceptible to damage that can significantly bog down the wearer's movement.

"Nova" product systems owe their popularity to their effectiveness. Nova Troopers present an impressive and intimidating spectacle and their presence is often enough to deter violent criminal activity or quell unrest. On the other hand, Nova training does not produce leaders - perhaps by design - and their gear tends to look better than it actually is.

Nova Trooper 32XP

Combat Dress
Heavy Blaster Rifle

Six Nova Troopers make up a 200-point squad. "Promote" one to Corporal by giving him Danger Sense and Veteran. The squad uses the Militia theme and the Hive Mind tactical discipline. This write-up was inspired by the not-Storm Troopers available from Reaper in metal as well as their economical "bones" material. Search the Reaper site for "Nova." They offer six different poses.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Rogue Stars - Loor Scouts

Here is another Squad for Rogue Stars, this time courtesy of the Alien Federation line from CP Models. I am unaware of any official background information, so drafted up my own.

I imagine the Loor as a remarkably unified race, socially speaking, that evolved precious little capacity for interspecies empathy. As a result, they tend to understand relations with non-Loor as a predator/prey binary. This may also explain their apparent indifference to the laws and customs of other sentients. By contrast, Loor revere their own ways and severely punish infractions. Exile is the harshest sanction; Loor do not leave their homeworld by choice.

Those who survive exile (most commit suicide) always find their way into the Loor Triads. Non-Loor know practically nothing about the Triads except that, by some quirk of psychobiology, members of one Triad do not recognize any other Loor as part of the "true" Loor species. Some experts theorize this strange phenonenon, which they consider an analog to sociopathy, is related to coping with the trauma of surviving exile.

Others believe it is part of the life cycle of the Loor species as a whole: Non-Loor paleontologists have discovered extremely limited evidence of Loor evolution in the fossil record of the planet they call home. Could they have originated elsewhere and merely adopted (conquered?) the current Loor system? Perhaps the small gangs of Loor lurking around spaceports throughout the galaxy are scouting for a new homeworld.

Already perceived as xenophobic gangsters, the Loor are therfore sometimes also considered infiltrators and even potential invaders. Escalated Triad activity has triggered system-wide panics, usually resulting in pogroms and at least one small war. Perhaps the Triads are secretive because they are hated; perhaps the reverse is true. In either case, the Loor are effectively a galactic underclass - tolerated at best and never welcome.

Loor have limited control over the pigmentation of the flexible scutes covering their bodies and the scales of their hands harden into horny talons at the finger tips. All healthy, unmodified Loor have the following traits: Claws, Reptiloid, and Stealth 1. Loor disfavor most clothing and armor but are eager to trade or steal other technology, especially weapons.

The Squad detailed below reflects a typical Triad scouting party. Unlike their exiled forbears, these Loor were all born into the Triad and hatched together from the same clutch. While females are by far the more populous sex on the Loor homeworld, female offspring are the rarest in Triad broods. Sometimes, a clutch will yield no females. Females that survive to adulthood are accorded tremendous security but have little to no personal freedom.

The next rarest offspring in a given clutch are sterile male "runts" - Loor born smaller, weaker, slower, or defective in some other sense, apart from their sterility. Fertile males are more common than "runts" but less common than sterile males overall. Fertile males monopolize all positions of authority in the Triad. In any given clutch, only one fertile male may breed. How the breeding male is determined is unknown, perhaps even to Loor.

As a rule, there is little conflict among clutchmates. They appear to perceive themselves as a single genetic unit, although fertile males from the same clutch are in fact not genetically identical. Fertile males tend to consult with one another but the breeding male has final say. While sterile males are content in servile roles, no clutchmate is actually considered expendable. In this Squad, for example, the runt is slower and less stealthy than his brothers. He has been afforded a less sophisticated, noisy weapon but at the same time equipped with a refraction field generator.

Theme: Pirates

Tactical Discipline: Cool Under Fire

Loor Breeding Male 51XP

Fast 1
Leadership 2
Stealth 3
Needler Rifle

Loor Fertile Male 41XP

Danger Sense
Fast 1
Stealth 3
Needler Rifle

Loor Sterile Male (Tech) 37XP

Fast 1
Stealth 3
Tech 1
Needler Rifle

Loor Sterile Male (Medic) 36XP

Fast 1
Medic 1
Stealth 3
Needler Rifle

Loor Sterile Male Runt 35XP

Refraction Field Harness
Stealth 2

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Rogue Stars - Rebs Squad

Although I did pre-order ("nickstart") all the North Star figures for Rogue Stars via Brigade Games, I have been pretty excited about using Mantic's Rebs faction from Deadzone. These guys are absolutely perfect for Rogue Stars. So here is my first attempt at a Squad, trying to stick both to WYSIWYG and Mantic's existing fluff, where available.

I picked the Bounty Hunter theme and I think Opportunists (+1 to Reaction rolls) fits a group with no bonuses to winning Initiative. I struggled with whether Yrtl should have two Monowire Blades and whether they should be taken "Built In" but ultimately went with a less literal approach. The other question I struggled with was skipping armor for Matilda. I went with the far cheaper Stealth option, which matches her sniper flavor.

I am already concocting backstories for these hoodlums, just by virtue of Squad creation. This is exactly what I love about low-model count rule sets. You can really dive into the personalities of your minis - again, I think an appropriate term for this would be "RPG Creep."

Please note that I have included pictures - all from Mantic's promotional materials - only in order to give the reader something to judge my efforts against. I certainly don't hold out these photos as mine (they aren't) or mean to suggest that I painted these figures (I didn't). I probably will paint my guys up pretty similarly to Mantic's pictures, however - so just imagine these guys with a much worse paint job.

Yrtl (63XP)

Light Combat Dress
Monowire Blade
Fast Draw
Flamer Pistol
Psionic (Teleportation)
Tough 1
Weapon Master 1

Tchak Jack (33XP)

Assault Rifle
Difficult Target 2
Free Disengage
Light Combat Dress

Chomp (32XP)

Danger Sense
Kevlar Jacket
Machine Gun
Marksman 1
Tough 1

Matilda (42XP)

Fire Into Melee
Laser Rifle/Accurate Weapon
Marksman 3
Stealth 2

Doctor Pral (30XP)

Martial Arts 2
Medic 1
Psionic (Encourage, Guidance)
Tech 1

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Rogue Stars Overview

I was not excited for Rogue Stars until reading through a copy of Advanced Song of Blades and Heroes this past fall. Having purchased, digested, and ultimately disliked the revised edition of SBH back in 2014, I had pretty much written off Ganesha Games. But whereas Revised was a near miss, Advanced turned out to be a near hit - thanks to reactions. So I pre-ordered Rogue Stars hoping that Andrea Sfiligoi had continued along the design trajectory toward my preferences.

He did not disappoint!

oh man look at those space men go

By using a d20, Rogue Stars has plenty of room for modifiers and can afford to eschew stats altogether. Characters (i.e., models) are defined entirely by Traits. Each player has 200XP to create a Squad of 4-6 Characters and must spend 30-70XP on each. Squad creation begins with selecting a theme. What kind of Traits and equipment are available to your Squad at the outset depends on which theme you choose. Themes come into play elsewhere - for example, Pirates and Mercs get extra XP for looting treasure chests. Finally, each player chooses a Tactical Discipline for their Squad, a special rule that applies to all the members, such as being able to re-roll a morale test.

Expect Squad creation to take a while - Rogue Stars is chock full of Traits and all kinds of equipment. Themes help narrow your choices but there is still a lot to think about. Folks who prefer a WYSIWYG approach over hunting down the most competitive builds will find plenty of options for bringing to life whatever miniatures they use. I have no idea whether there are game-breaking combos in Rogue Stars and honestly don't care; I plan to use this game to tell stories rather than run tournaments. But I have no doubt that some mouse will find the cheese, given such a wealth of options.

There are three tables - mission, location, and complication - for rolling up scenarios. Each has twenty (!) options. Aside from just terrain and weather, there are also rules covering gravity and exotic atmosphere conditions. There is a whole table for determining the consequences of firing projectile weapons aboard spacecraft. And there's another table for randomizing what sort of wonders and perils you might face while exploring a derelict. There is plenty of support here for having all kinds of space adventures.

Once the Squads are assembled and the scenario is set up, players roll off for initiative. The winner is the active player. The active player attempts to activate her Characters one at a time by taking an activation test - rolling up to three d20s. For each roll that is 8 or above, after applying modifiers, the character may perform a single action. She may use any or all of her available actions but the Character gets a stress token for each action performed. Each stress token grants a -1 modifier to subsequent activation attempts.

The active player can attempt to activate any or all of her Characters as many times as she pleases. But the more dice she rolls, the more rolls she may fail. Each modified roll below 8 grants the non-active player a Reaction Die. The non-active player may used Reaction Dice to attempt to activate his Characters. If he succeeds, his Characters can act before the active player gets to perform any actions with the Character she is activating. So "reactions" are really more like interruptions. Just like with actions, Characters take a stress marker for every reaction they perform.

One very important type of reaction is making a Take the Initiative roll. The non-active player needs to roll a 16 or better, after modifiers. He becomes the active player if he succeeds but the newly non-active player removes all stress markers from her Characters. Losing the initiative is the only way to remove all of the stress tokens on all of your Characters. The active player does not have to wait for the non-active player to roll a successful Take the Initiative reaction; she can simply pass initiative whenever she chooses.

Everything in Rogue Stars is a d20 roll and that includes combat. The basic TN for a ranged or melee attack is 10 - but there are many, many potential modifiers, taking into account everything from cover to weapon quality to making called shots. (Yes you can go for the headshot, at a 30% penalty. And yes, headshots can be lethal.) If an attack is successful, the target determines hit location (unless it was a called shot) makes a damage roll. This roll is modified by the amount of damage the attack inflicted, whether the target is protected by armor, whether the target is already wounded, etc. The result may take the target out of action (OOA), or may result in pin and/or wound markers, or may require a roll on a further table that breaks out the wound by hit location and wound severity. That includes Character death!

Melee is a somewhat more complicated than ranged attacks. Being outnumbered, knocked prone, making Powerful Blows, and trying to disengage ... there are rules covering it all. But my prediction is, ranged attacks are sufficiently deadly to render melee rare absent boards truly covered in terrain. Then again, there is teleportation in Rogue Stars ...

As a final note, you don't get your money out of a d20 mechanic without critical failure and critical success. Rogue Stars covers both for all sorts of rolls, including Activation. There is even a critical failure result for firing a pistol in melee - you manage to shoot yourself in one of your legs, of course! That's an example of how gritty these rules get and no doubt there are lots of things to remember. Fortunately, Osprey has promised a QRS is on the way as one is not included in the book itself. Probably due to the constraints of the series, Rogue Stars also does not use the usual SBH  mechanic of set distances.

I am really looking forward to playing Rogue Stars in 2017! The older I get, the more I want to play low model count games with a heavy narrative ("RPG creep"?) and this ruleset seems perfect for that. I know some folks are already put off by the complexity but I don't think Rogue Stars really qualifies as complex. The structure of the game itself is as streamlined and intuitive as SBH. I know that is small comfort for gamers allergic to modifiers. If you're one of them, best to stay away. But Rogue Stars is a great bet for anyone looking for a simple game that is crunchy enough to really bring the character out of the minis.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Gorgon Studios Draugr

Gorgon Studios offers a smallish range of Dark Age Scandinavians, including some Draugr. Having ordered them a while back, with no particular plans for them if I'm honest, I just now got around to painting them up. They are perfect as roaming enemies for Frostgrave.

oh man look at those draugr go

These sculpts are a great balance between undead lethargy and simmering menace. They struck me as perfect for frozen wights roving the ice-ridden ruins of Felstad so I painted their corpseflesh blue-grey and washed with TAP blue tone before highlighting. The eyes are Vallejo Model Green Sky, which I think of as "Romulan Green."

pretty sure these two are related

The bases are in my usual style for Frostgrave and the dirty snow look nicely compliments these grubby Viking zombies. Gorgon Studios advertises them as 28mm but they are noticably taller than North Star's Frostgrave soldiers. I'm fine with that - these draugr obviously descended from a heartier race of men than the scoundrels picking over Felstad these days.

there was a sale at Ax-Mart

The draugr set actually comes with eight figures, all different sculpts. After painting them up, I noticed that Gorgon had shorted me one out of this set. I'll mention it to them the next time I order and see if they can send me the missing guy. Unfortunately, it was one of the coolest sculpts in the set. I know because I ordered two sets and the other one was complete. The bellowing chieftain is sold separately.

Gorgon also makes a cool necromancer to waken the cranky frozen warriors. I will post a picture of him  as soon as I'm finished painting him, along with some scale comparisons to North Star soldiers and gnolls. If Gorgon expanded the line to include a few more sculpts (most notably, some draugr bowmen) this could be the basis for a very thematic Frostgrave warband.

Monday, December 12, 2016

No Business Like Snow Business

Working on large bases for some upcoming monstrosities to stalk the ruins of Felstad, I got to thinking about snow. The first ever product I purchased explicitly for terrain work was a tub of Citadel snow and after a few false starts, I just decided to set it aside. That was seven years ago and I have never really looked back, even despite GW reportedly improving their product.

So how to base for Frostgrave? Without really thinking about it, I used a mixture of finely crumbled cork and Vallejo's Sandy Paste: prime gray, wash with Vallejo European Dust, and drybrush white. Very simple and - to my eyes at least - very effective for bases fully covered in snow.

L: finished; R: primed and washed

Bits of cork help to vary the texture. I also like to "tease" up the Sandy Paste while it is fresh then tamp it back down after it has been drying for a while. The idea is to create thoroughly frozen, dirty terrain rather than the fluffy stuff you might see freshly fallen in a more temperate climate. Needless to say, grass clumps will not be necessary.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Fuel Depot, Part 1

Picked up the Chemical Plant from Pegasus Hobbies some time ago. It's a weird kit, when you think about it: chock full of pipes and tanks and valves obviously designed to be connected but which simultaneously do not necessarily combine into anything coherent. Is it some kind of experimental psychology? My assembly process was akin to automatic drawing and I guess I ended up with components for a sort of fuel depot. Maybe?

To denizens of the "Far" Post-Apoc, the ruins of the Long Ago are like rapidly evaporating memories of a dream. The shapes are oddly familiar, like a string of words spelled at random. Who knows what the Ancients intended these strange monuments to accomplish?

Survivors of the "Near" Post-Apoc are confronted with a world built of crumbling assumptions. They thought they understood how things worked until it all fell apart. The infrastructure of their fallen society now stands aloof and suddenly mysterious.

what do you suppose it does, Vern?

That industrial doohickey was actually the last thing I built but was a nice size to test out colors. I sprayed a few Badger Ghost Tints, starting with Plasma Blue, to get a burnt/greasy complexion. Not sure yet how to handle the dry-brushing. Those two (unfinished) hombres are Bootleggers from Great Escape's line of gangs meant for use with The Chicago Way.

Arc de Lapidated

I call this one the Sisyphus Device because - as near as I can tell - it accomplishes nothing qua machinery. It's hard to tell in this picture but I dirtied up the pieces with Vallejo European Dust. I wonder if the big tank should be in a different color? I'm thinking of going over it with a streaky white coat before any further weathering.

modern art is really the worst

The main piece (or, more precisely, collection of pieces) has yet to be primed. The plan right now is construction tractor yellow and maybe the big tank will be green. Looking at it now, it seems like the fossilized skeleton of some bizarre six-legged beast reconstructed - perhaps incorrectly - for display to the public.

All three contraptions will be based to match my trailer park. Whatever they are, they have drawn the people to them. For some, they represent a link to the Long Ago. Others have come to puzzle out their original use. Still others will come - to claim them as spoils!

Monday, November 28, 2016

Post Apoc Trailer Park, Part 1

How many post-apocalyptic tabletop landscapes are defined by the ubiquitous Plasticville O scale trailer set? At least one more ...

Mine are based on shaped insulation foam glued to 1/8-inch hardboard. I started with 1/2-inch foam because it was the thinnest I could find and still spent considerable time trimming it down. I didn't want the trailers sitting up on hills so much as hoping the final product might stand out more with a little extra elevation.

a cultist from North Star takes aim from the safety of a cluttered workbench

The Plasticville trailers come with embarrassingly chintzy wheels and a retractable step under the door. I wanted a more settled-in look and so trimmed off the undercarriage bits along with the tongue jack and discarded the wheels and step. My trailers are supported by 1/2-inch foam and skirted with strips of corrugated Plastruct sheets. The trailer kit itself goes together in no time and mounting it up like this adds very little complication while providing a realistic effect.

don't want any mutant raccoons getting under there

One of the most fun - and also most expensive - aspects of this project is hunting down all the gubbins to junk up the scenery. I found mine from a variety of sources: from the usual suspects like Armorcast and TTCombat to model railroad vendors like Rusty Rail and Rusty Stump. I wanted these pieces to pull double duty and work for both "near" as well as "far" post-apoc gaming, everything from Project Z to Terminator to This Is Not A Test and Wreck-Age.

I scratch built the porches because I couldn't find any premade examples that appeared to be constructed by some daffy redneck. Fortunately, I had exactly the right skills to make them myself (i.e., none whatsoever).

I love it when a plan comes together

For the eagle-eyed readers: that sniper rifle next to the roof-surfing mattress comes from the Bolt Action US Infantry weapons sprue, which I reckon makes it a .30-06 ... BOOM HEADSHOT! I like terrain that inspires scenario rules ...

One of my favorite stages of a terrain project is priming. This is when all the disparate elements either pull together ... or don't. How do you think it turned out this time?

it's always tempting to leave 'em like that for some reason

And then on to the real work: my miniatures want to suffer and scrounge through the post apocalypse in Living Color! The Plasticville trailers aren't exactly covered in detail so weathering really helps them pop. Someone once said, making terrain for miniatures war gaming is mostly a process of hiding your mistakes. Fortunately, you don't even have to worry about that when it comes to this genre.

what ails ye, wastelander?

Our first trailer is the (No Such Thing As) Free Clinic. The trailer is conveniently labeled for the ease of unlettered drifters and raiders. Seems like the Doc produces extensive amounts of byproduct - including a surfeit of off cuts, one would guess, given the orange biohazard bags piling up on top of the operatory. To be honest, I'm considering repainting those bags. I'd love to hear some feedback on them especially.

that teddy bear has seen some things, man

Doc's pride and joy is that gleaming white fridge out back. Organ and blood donations always welcome! All his medical files are carefully stored nearby. I don't know if that's a HIPAA-compliant solution but no one has complained yet. Well except the one ingrate who scrawled "BUTCHER!" on the side of the Clinic. Like they say, you can't please all of the patients all of the time. Caveat leper.

Stay tuned for more!

Friday, November 4, 2016

Strange Aeons Overview

It does not take that long to play, like an average game takes what ... ? 
Uncle Mike 
I'd say fifteen to forty five minutes. And that was totally intentional because a lot of my friends have really, really short attention spans and a lot of games just take way too long to play. 
see full interview 
How 'much' attention span can a designer assume that players have? This isn't really a matter of how long a game takes but rather of how much play we get out of time spent on a game. In other words, a player with a short attention span probably has unconsciously high standards. So "Uncle Mike" Atkinson was forced to design a game that meets the high standards we don't know we have.

The result is a d6-based skirmish game with an extremely low model count called Strange Aeons (hereinafter SA). It is for miniatures gaming what Call of Cthulhu is for roleplaying games, and not just in terms of genre. That RPG upended the power fantasy of Dungeons & Dragons by focusing on characters breaking down rather than "leveling up." Similarly, SA disregards the usual 'plot' conceit of skirmish campaigns, that warbands exist to dominate one another, and instead charts the rise and likely fall of mere mortals who dare gaze into the abyss.

WARNING - may cause SAN loss

In a given game of SA, one player controls the protagonists - agents of the "Threshold" organization (think pre-WW2 Delta Green) - while the other controls the antagonists, or "Lurkers." Generally speaking, only Threshold characters develop over the course of a campaign. A new Lurker list is written up for each session, representing fresh horrors. SA envisions the players switching roles after the first game and playing a second, but this is not required. If someone only wants to play Lurkers, that is fine. But the default assumption is that the players will essentially be running two campaigns simultaneously.

This is possible because the mechanics are clear and efficient. Six stats define any given figure: Movement, Dexterity, Constitution, Attacks, Wounds, and Resolve. These interact economically to produce quick results. Just to pick the obvious example: Close combat is an opposed d6 roll, with each combatant adding the Close Combat Bonus of the weapon used. The difference is the number of hits the winner landed. The winner then rolls that many dice to wound, adds a weapon-based damage bonus to the highest result, and the difference between that and the target's Con stat equals how many wounds the target suffers. I won't go into further detail; suffice it to say that all the resolution mechanics are this direct.

The final game mechanic I'll note is activation. Each player may only activate ("nominate" in SA) a single figure per turn. Certain figures have the Command skill, which allows them to nominate allied figures within a certain range. A wealth of tactical possibilities arise from this simple limitation - and that is my definition of design elegance. SA is one of those games that makes others seem unfocused and wasteful. But the true beauty of SA is how the stark efficiency of the game mechanics contrasts with the truly luxurious campaign support.

Permanent Injury, Advances, Equipment Lists, Spells, Monsters, Scenarios - these elements are not merely present and it's not just that there are a ton of options and outcomes, but everything included is also of good or better quality. I could go on and on with "there are even ..." type statements. I'll limit myself to mentioning that there are six basic scenarios (not counting variants), nine advanced scenarios, and sixteen (!) quest scenarios that can be unlocked by collecting "map pieces" during the basic and advanced scenarios. Oh and there are 50+ pages of Lurkers, not including a further raft of options the Lurker player can use to make things even worse for the Threshold agents.

I simply cannot do justice to the content of the SA 2nd ed. rulebook in a few paragraphs. It is easily the gold standard for miniatures skirmish games in terms of campaign support. Considering the simplicity of the rules and the low entry requirements as far as models and terrain go, this could be almost anyone's first miniatures game. But at the same time, I think it will exceed the expectations of veteran campaigners. I should note that I intend to use SA as a toolbox to run several limited RPG-style campaigns for my friends:

- local police stumble across a strange cult in rural Virginia
- intrepid Mounties encounter the horrific truth behind First Nations legends
- marooned ne'er-do-wells confront South Seas cannibals - and far worse ...

I already collected about 40 or so miniatures to cover all three campaigns!

You can obtain your own copy here.

Empire of the Dead Overview

Pax Britannica! Ushered in by Wellington's triumph, the apogee of this gloriously British century was no doubt the latter reign of Queen Victoria. The power of Her Majesty's servants not only stretched to the far corners of the Earth but was practically irresistible everywhere. Empire was not then a dirty word, or at least not such a dirty word as we now assume. And even despite everything that could be (and regularly is) said against the Victorians, it is impossible not to take some inspiration from the romantic image of their lives and times.

For me, such inspiration can be boiled down to a few names: Dickens, Doyle, Kipling, Stoker, Verne, Wells, etc. Their work is unanimously haunted by darkness. Indeed, it is the prerequisite for the Victorian hero: "There are dark shadows on the earth, but its lights are stronger in contrast." The predominating tone therefore must be dark and superstitious. Certain interpretations of these men's work especially evoke their basis in the uncanny - and manage it with subtlety:


Empire of the Dead (hereinafter "EotD") definitely embraces the fundamental darkness of Victorian literature, although it is influenced toward the techno-fantastical by Alan Moore and the steampunk vogue. To borrow Tolkien's icy phrase, I cordially dislike steampunk. Colonel Moran's air rifle is quite far enough for me, thank you.* Alas, steampunk is a core conceit of the EotD setting: The mysterious element "Infernium" (I think we Americans call it Ghost Rock, no?) drives a new industrial revolution. And of course the mystical forces push back. The result is begoggled bobbies deploying Gatling guns against werewolves amidst fog and cobblestones.

A rather tired concept, honestly. It is nonetheless what one might call "Strange Aeons by Gaslight" - that is, a low model count skirmish game with a robust campaign system. As someone more interested in the unfolding story than the gameplay in se, this is fast becoming my preferred 'scope' of miniatures gaming. But I am a gamer, after all, so I do care about mechanics. Along those lines, EotD seems sturdy if unoriginal.

EotD is played in turns each comprising four phases: maintenance, initiative (roll off), action, and combat. Movement, ranged attacks, sorcery, etc., all occur during the action phase on an IGOUGO basis, unfortunately. Melees are fought in the combat phase in an order specified by the player with initiative. Given how few models make up each side's warband, the tried and true (and boring) IGOUGO structure is not a deal breaker. But, for the very same reason, I'd prefer a more complex structure- maybe one built around reaction mechanics?

A starting warband comprises around seven to ten figures. You have 150 shillings to staff and outfit your warband, where the most basic unequipped figure costs 10 shillings. More powerful figures cost 15-35 shillings before equipment. Each faction has an equipment table plus there is a generic table, which all factions can access, and an exotic table accessible to some types of characters. There is an excellent granularity and variety of mundane equipment (e.g., a crossbow has different stats from a hand crossbow) plus the VSF/steampunk gear not only has neat effects but some items can also hilariously malfunction.

Each figure is defined by nine stats, and they are exactly the ones you would expect: Move, Combat, Marksmanship, Strength, Fortitude, Attacks, Wounds, Bravado (i.e., morale), and Arcane. The "standard human" statline appears to be:

This will set you back 10 shillings.

The highest base combat stat in the game seems to be 7 (the top-tier Werewolf and Vampire heroes have Cbt 7 and Arc 7 respectively). To do most things, including hitting in combat, you need to roll over a target number (more specifically, melee combat is an opposed roll) on a d10, adding the relevant stat and any modifiers. Some people say the d10 is better for skirmish gaming than the d6 but is the ability to modify rolls by 10% rather than 17% that important? This is not a rhetorical question. I suppose it also allows for finer tuning on the statline, although the significance of that is also questionable.

In any case, whether an attack inflicted a wound is determined by reference to a chart (Strength versus Fortitude). Ho hum. As soon as the figure takes its last wound, the severity of the injury is determined by reference to another chart, rolling as many dice as the number of wounds the figure took. Only the most severe injury result counts.

The range of injury results is a good balance between simple and interesting. The figure might be unaffected or might be removed from play - but it could also become Discombobulated or, worse, go Down. Without going into detail, both conditions limit what the figure can do in subsequent rounds, although an already-downed figure that rolls another Down result is automatically removed from play. Downed figures have a chance to recover during the next maintenance phase and, if unsuccessful, subsequently. Figures automatically recover from discombobulation at the beginning of the next maintenance phase.

Figures removed from play or who end the game Down must roll on the Campaign Injury table. There is a 30% chance of no serious injury and a 5% chance of death. There are ten other possible results, including some that require a roll on a further chart. For example, the figure may end up psychologically Unhinged and, there is a 10% chance that the condition could eventually worsen to the point of meriting commitment to Bedlam. This is what I mean by a robust campaign system.

And there's much more to it than getting hurt, going insane, or - yes this can happen - being deported from Great Britain. You can also capture enemy characters and sometimes even convert them to your cause. You can visit doctors for healing, although some of them are just quacks that will make your ailments worse. You can sell loot to pawn brokers. Your characters can even get better, earning better stats and new skills - the grunts can even be promoted to heroes!

There is also a solid scenario creation system: a table of five missions and a table of five locations - plus some minor rules differences depending on whether the game takes place during the day or night. (Most EotD vampires don't care for the sun.) Finally, players can buy "Unusual Occurrences" to affect certain aspects of the scenario, including rolling in the notorious London fog and riling up an angry mob.

This is where EotD really shines. This kind of campaign support is far more important to me than whether the fundamental mechanics are novel or, God forbid, actually innovative. (Too many rulesets are falsely advertised and reviewed as "innovative.") As far as the setting, and therefore the miniatures, go ... I find steampunk repellent but EotD does not lean so hard on those tropes that I can't overlook it and even, to some extent, get into it. The idea of man-portable Gatling guns is acceptable in a setting where gentlemen sorcerers can summon a mob of Victorian zombies. The seemingly obligatory "Tesla Projector," however, is pushing it. Thankfully for me, EotD is more about Gothic horror than strapping superfluous goggles onto everybody.

With all that in mind, how excited am I about playing EotD? I think this speaks for itself:

This will set you back considerably more than 10 shillings.

* But what about the Nautilus? In his place and time, Nemo's technological achievements were the exception rather than the rule. Steampunk assumes the reverse, which is exactly my objection.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Most impressive!

Metal King Studio is a one-man company owned, managed, and, er, staffed by Sean Sutter. Mr. Sutter ran a successful Kickstarter to fund his skirmish game Relicblade in February/March of this past year. The game shipped by late June, which is to say, exactly on time. For those interested in backing punctual crowdfunding projects, Mr. Sutter plans to run another Kickstarter next month to fund further Relicblade content.

But let's not start by getting off track ...

Relicblade is now available directly from Metal King Studio in its constituent parts: currently, a small range of Heroic 32mm miniatures and delightfully illustrated cards and rulebook. But its most cost-effective form is a two-player boxed set. Note: this is not a starter set in the conventional sense, i.e., a taste/teaser of the game. To the contrary, this boxed set comes with everything you need to enjoy a full game of Relicblade (well, apart from the terrain).

I ordered a copy earlier this month and received it promptly, just as one would expect from a KS creator who managed to deliver rewards on time. Mr. Sutter even included a hand-written note complete with hand-drawn sketch of the Questing Knight, or perhaps a cousin of the Questing Knight, facing down a Soldier Pig and a Raider Pig. Talk about cranking the indie/artisanal charm up to ELEVEN!

oh man look at those pigmen go

Aside from just bragging about receiving this awesome drawing, I also want to mention that Mr. Sutter emphasized in his note how important it is for games like Relicblade that gamers like yours truly (and hopefully you as well, dear reader!) are willing to try new things. While this can be expensive in terms of both time and money, especially when it comes to miniatures gaming, he makes an excellent point: We are lucky to live in a boom era of miniatures gaming and sticking resolutely to the same old-same old is downright ... well ... ungrateful.

boxed set components (excl. miniatures)

Relicblade is not just a game; it is an achievement. I don't mean that lightly. It could be said in a broad sense for most games, given how much effort goes into them. But the word has a special resonance in the case of Relicblade, where the rules, the layout and editing, the components, the sculpts, the artwork, the setting implicit in the visual design, the marketing, even the distribution - all of this not only flowed from one man's intellect and imagination but in large part is the fruit of one man's dedicated labor. Many gamers dream of accomplishing what young Mr. Sutter already has. Some have tried. Very, very few have produced something as lovely as Relicblade.

best rules illustrations ever

What makes a game stand out is strong brand identity. Relicblade has brand in spades. The subject may be generic fantasy but the style, and especially the consistency of the style across all the components, feels very personal - the players are invited to step into the world of the game, a crucial aesthetic for miniatures gaming. The mechanics also support immersion. Without going into detail (more on that later), the rules are intuitive and unobtrusive. Everything here reinforces everything else.

Mr. Sutter's achievement should be exciting for all miniatures gamers. There are a lot of talented, driven creators out there. I hope they see Relicblade as an inspiration and a challenge to share their visions with the rest of us!