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Gilead's Curse (warhammer fiction update)

I enjoyed the Gilead novels.

They were fun reads and the backstory of a lost elf household from the "colonial era" was an interesting exploration of a little-investigated part of Old World lore.

However, I found the latest addition to the saga to be much less interesting. The linkage of episodes dealing with two different "classical foes" is weak.

More of a problem is the volume of text that read like an endless combat montage. If a picture is worth a thousand worlds, that really doesn't mean use a thousand words to replace the picture. I read a review of Michael Moorcock's writing once that made the good point he has a way of describing a fight that lasts hours in short crisp interesting language that then moves on with the story. This is the inverse of that style.

Some tricks were overused (the elf should not be so badly injured because the foe makes mistake of thinking main arteries same place as in a human once, let's not keep going back to that).

There are some interesting bits - how do undead like tomb warriors think of flesh and blood creatures was an interesting thing to explore and this was done well. However, overall it was thin as a story.

Warhammer Fiction

You take what you get with Roleplay setting fiction, much of it no better than the worst Lovecraft pastiches and some good enough to stand on its own.

The Warhammer Fantasy setting is certainly like this.

Finishing the just-published Van Horstmann by Ben Counter triggered this post.  Van Horstmann is an interesting figure in WFRP lore (a wizard from the purest college who is an uber villain) and a book about him has lots of potential to explore an interesting persona, tell a story of how someone is corrupted, explore the inner workings of a wizard college etc.  This isn't that book.  Only at the end do you learn of his motivations and they are cardboard cutout level stuff.  In terms of dramatic punch, it's enough material for a short story not a novel.

The best Warhammer novel I have ever read is Drachenfels by Jack Yeovil (pen name of Kim Newman).  That has several interesting characters and lots of Warhammer lore.  Most of it a bit unofficial (though the recent Enemy Within redux campaign brings back some things from it such as the emperor's son).  The other books in the Genevieve cycle are interesting but this one stands out.

The Witch Hunter novels of C.L. Werner are another set of interesting books.  Less character and more action but nice trips through the many foes and villains of the WFRP universe with an interesting protagonist of a classical sort in WFRP (the witch hunter) who is done believably but not "one note" style.

The Tales of the Old World collection of short stories is also a great Warhammer themed set of stories.

The Sigmar trilogy of books are a bit of a yawn.  They fill in some character and lore, but overall are not as interesting as say the Nagash books.  In large part that is because the Nagash books are much more about other characters in his story than Nagash himself (who is a bit the cardboard villain I critique the Van Horstmann character for being but that is less a problem when there are more other characters to be interested in).

Then of course there is Felix and Gotrek with their never-ending adventures.  They are beer and pretzels stuff and enjoyable, though I find Gotrek a bit tiresome after a while, most of the interesting personal story stuff is centred on Felix.  

Situations not Maps

I have long liked adventures that are less a flow chart of events (a map of dungeon rooms is the traditional RPG flow chart) and are more “unstable situations” in which player characters become embroiled. The Players then choose how their characters try to change or take advantage of unfolding events.

Thinking back, I realize that this was what excited me about the first megadungeon I ever tried to run in high school, the Judge’s Guild Caverns of Thracia, in which there were factions that the Players could align with or play off each against each other. I was eager to see what the Players would do – to have them create the story and plot (as it turned out they mostly just killed things).

A situation-based adventure is built around conflict and factions, with places and things being the subjects and tools in the conflict but not the starting point. The key design elements are thus the NPC’s while places and things provide grist for the conflict and memorable set piece episodes.  There have been some very good things posted by various people over the years about using conflict to create RPG situations.

I find WFRP supports such a more narrative, open to player initiative style of gaming while giving a strong array of crunchier tactical options to Players and GMs that works well for this situation-based approach.  It's certainly not the only game to allow focus on story and conflict not mapping 10' squares but it does a good job of still keeping tactical decisions and character creation choices.

In published scenarios examples are Edge of Night in which the heroes can choose the noble faction they support at the Masquerade Ball and Witch’s Song in which they can choose very different responses to the Witch Hunter’s arrival. These are good examples of how situations can include key events or locations such as the Masquerade Ball or the Witch Hunter’s Arrival, while letting Players choose how they interact.

This kind of play works better with WFRP’s narrative approach to locations (e.g., location cards) than with the D&D system I was long playing in before. The last edition of D&D needs attention to encounter design and mapping – a fun encounter in D&D is like an amusement park ride of physical and other events and things to interact with and trigger. This requires more preparation and puts more pressure on play to be linear – to stick to a map, making it harder to create fluid situations while still using the system’s strengths.

At the other end of the complexity spectrum are systems like In a Wicked Age which is completely narrative and situation-based. IAWA is a fun game I recommend (cheap too!) and drives home that story is about character and conflict. WFRP seems to hit a sweet spot of providing more “crunch” in character design and options than a simple system such as IAWA while being free flowing enough in play that specific locations and scenes can be made up on the fly.

Situations still need “through lines”, the “what if Players are passive” sequence of events, but don’t require a GM force Player down that course.

What the D&D experience can still teach is that fun encounters often involve interacting with the scenery whether it’s chandeliers, braziers of hot coals, pits to jump across or lecherous nobles and trays of drinks. WFRP GM’s and Players can both bring these things in with location cards, with narration simply roleplaying for bonus dice, or spending fortune points to create resources - however both Players and GMs do better with some "cues" to respond to than pulling things out of pure imagination.
This is to explain a proposed new Action Card I am testing at table to replace the Party Card.

The WFRP 3rd edition attempt to have something that binds a group together is laudable, a “character sheet for the group” not just “a sheet for each PC”. Some other games have done this with “the spaceship you’re all on”, the “magical covenant you belong to” both which you buy features for as for your PC and both of which give you individual benefits etc. but I like WFRP going further with a mechanic that is “ways you help each other, or annoy each other”.

Breaking down the Party Card’s elements and reasons I’m revisiting it (many tables apparently just drop it):

- Party Tension doesn’t feel like it – the track builds slowly and the result is that a “trigger point” where negative effects are felt doesn’t “feel” inherently connected to what made tension reach that point. The idea of tracking inter-PC tension is a fun one but I feel this one ends up feeling like “arbitrary negative consequences” when they do fall.

- Party Special Ability overlooked – perhaps some tables are better at this than mine.

- Sharing Talents either overlooked or over-used in a way not roleplayed.

- Fortune Pool overlooked – a reward for good roleplaying to get more fortune points is fine idea though I admit I’m usually caught up in running game, while I form impressions during play I really only “grade performance” after the fact and the principle here is "reinforce good play on the spot". I give access to freeform die outcome possibilities for assigned boons etc. only with roleplay which is probably enough roleplay oomph mechanically.

So instead, each Player has a single Basic Action Card, the name varies by the Party Card, Glory Hound being this groups and has the information on it that puts it more in Player hands.

This would be a basic card you get starting out for free.

In this case: Glory Hound Party (click for a bigger look), courtesy of Strange Eons software.



The fact it recharges compensates a bit for letting every hero have opportunity to share talents, but I like letting every hero do this - why should only a couple of heroes do this at once?

In play you have to think ahead to still to choose what to slot, you can still benefit from it, and someone else is not as likely to recall what you can do as you are.

There are new generic chaos star effects on single and double chaos stars that reflect the "party stress downsides" of the tension meter - these chaos stars can only be invoked on failures (failure + chaos star not too likey, but the effects generally are nastier than a single chaos star effect). The particular effects here are based on the Glory Hound party.

Some effects in the game either increase party tension or disable a party talent slot.

When these come up I will replace those effects with something else. In the case of disabling a talent slot, which means one fewer shared talents, such as when someone is suffering a particularly nasty disease that makes working together harder ("stay over there and don't breath on me"), I will likely rule that the character in question can't "share their talent" or "benefit from a shared talent" instead.

In the case of increasing Party Tension, this will likely mean one Stress to each hero.

Comments welcome.

So far, players were happy with the switch, agreeing with the view of party card as "nice try but not cutting it".

Warhammer Trinkets

I post a fair bit at the FFG forum for various games, mostly Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (3rd Edition).

I was asked a while ago to show some of the things I use in my Warhammer game, so here they are.

Here is a shot of the business card holder I use for the various wound, disease etc. decks, and the craft holders (they all fit together in stack) for the counters used instead of chits for Stress and Fatigue, Fortune Points.  

In the back is a flyer display holder from a business supply store, currently with an image from the priest book (also in earlier edition) that I am using as the image of a monastery of Sigmar for an adventure.

I place different sorts of images in the holders as visuals, depending on the adventure.

You can see the large size chart paper sheet underneath it for sketching things like a map of the Teufel upriver of Ubersreik, the route to the monastery.

This adventure is a "murder mystery", the players will be encouraged to write any notes they want directly on the paper to make it easy for them to note anything they want.


This is the other side of the table facing players.  The holder here has options drawn from the hardback rules for more freeform universal effects from boons, banes, chaos stars and comets.

I have them on display to encourage creativity by players.

There is also a home made oversize "action card" that summarizes the First Aid skill.

The round chits at bottom are range markers.  Below the range label is the manoeuvre cost to get close and above to move further away.






Finally here is an image of "my side" of the table.  You can see a Full Night's Rest summary in action card format, standups I will be using and the stack of action cards for the NPC's.  For particular NPC's there are with the NPC card and a yellow sticky fastened to display underneath allows noting current ACE budget for the "card NPC".






















I use the d6's to keep track of the number of henchmen in groups or sometimes to assign events randomly.

I will post some images of "event/encounter" cards sometime soon.


Things I like about Warhammer tend to relate back to the central fact that it elegantly embodies things from both traditional games and indie games - giving the outcomes of those approaches simply.

Criticals and other traditional "roll on table" matters - now without the table.  By creating sets of cards to draw from with attention to the frequency with which different ones occur, the same effect as rolling is created but with the card, you take the card and put it with character and have the information to apply without writing anything down.  This works for random insanities, diseases or spell miscasts.

Multivariate outcomes - simple resolution systems are Success/Failure, a bit more complex adds Critical Success and Critical Failure.  Indie games have explored more complex resolutions that track narrative fiction's complexity better.  Polaris is an example of this where "Yes" and "No" can be "Yes and", "No and", but also "Yes, but", "No, however"..  You can lose the duel but impress the noblewoman who was watching anyway.  You can win the duel but strike her as a cad.  The system doesn't lecture about this but its "success/failure // boon/bane // comet/chaos star" system allows exactly this kind of outcome.

A flexible system - the stress/fatigue as well as wounds approach of the system allows gaming horror scenarios, races, chess matches - all sorts of situations can be reflected beyond a fight.

Of course, perhaps it's my time of life - being 48.  I'm not up for a power-fantasy game any more.  A game about accumulating aches and pains, mental quirks, corruption, in a grim, perilous world bound for ruin.  Somehow, that just seems about right.

Warhammer Still Going Strong

A year ago this August was when our table started playing Warhammer 3rd Edition and the table is still enjoying it.  As GM, I don't feel the fatigue that killed D&D for me.

I admit that's part of the less frequent posting to my blog.  "How to do this right" was more an issue with D&D than with Warhammer and was creating more grist for blog posts.

I've also found a love of the pre-written Warhammer setting material unlike what I've experienced with other potted settings.  Mostly I've always run "my own world" or a heavily revised version of a pre-written setting (the Al'Qadim setting for D&D).  Something about "the Old World" appeals to me as written and I've yet to feel a need to change anything.  It supports adventures without feeling hokier than intended.  Its creators' fondness for puns and in-jokes is amusing without detracting from seriousness of threats (e.g., the von Saponatheim family name, which when said out loud with right inflection sounds like the start to a fairy tale).

FFG has issued hardback books which present rules a bit better than the original boxed sets did.  This does create lots of "should I get hardbacks or boxed set with other components, or both" confusion and discussion on boards.  I admit, I'm a completionist and have all of it, even the app for iPad (iPhone really) to roll dice if needed.  For the game's long term greater appeal, I think they need to redo a "starter box set" to bring the best of those things together.

The "fiddly bits" are still fine - though we use coloured gaming stone counters for many of them rather than the cardboard chits provided with game for more distinct looks.

I'm at last starting to feel comfortable enough with rules etc. that I can start exploring part of the game that originally attracted me more, reading narrative and roleplay results into the dice pools beyond dictated success.  I'm trying to encourage player creativity allowing it with spends from fortune point pools.  If these aspects of play develop more, the game may start to look more like an indie game such as Fate or Universalis.

 


Warhammer 3rd Edition Going Strong

After over 15 sessions of play, our table is continuing to enjoy Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3rd Edition.

As GM I find the system easier to use and prep in than D&D was, Players seem to find running and improving PC's easier - no looking up stuff in books.

Still not seeing as much roleplaying of characters as I would like but seeing more than previously.

The "warhammerisms" are also very present in system and I find I like that flavour over a generic system.  The critical wounds, madnesses and diseases, the flavour of the careers for characters, the names of monster actions and the flavour of them (the troll vomit attack and the goblins stick 'em with pointy end - I'm just waiting for the "they don't like it up 'em" action for use with pikes).

The core books are indeed badly edited, though company is putting out hardbacks that I think are supposed to fix this.  FFG's customer service is great - I'm a bit amused how often there's a debate on a message board, I send question to their customer service and within 48 hours they've answered it.

To anyone contemplating it, I say don't be deterred by the "fiddly bits" of counters etc., these are actually part of a great, interlocking system that can reflect arduous outdoors adventures, horror adventures and regular combat.


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Changes


Been a while since I posted. 

Fatigue with 4e finally ended that D&D Campaign for me. Players were gracious understanding it.  The degree combat was focus of game and fact complexity meant some players had still not mastered rules for their characters were the main reasons for ending the game. 

A pity in that 2011 would have been 25th anniversary of playing in my homegrown campaign world but if it's not fun then it's not fun.

Game group is now trying out Warhammer 3rd Edition.  The tone of the "grim and perilous" world has long interested me and I've picked up background materials for it off and on, using some ideas selectively (e.g., Nurgle the god of disease etc.).

Not counting the "demo adventure" we have played 5 sessions of the system and reaction is positive, it's simpler to run and leaves more to imagination by not holding hand so much and I think it's leading to more player creativity.

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Avoiding Grind in 4e Combats


Drawn out, unfun fights are sometimes complained about in 4e, which is a real problem if it turns up since 4e is a very "fight fight fight for what's right" roleplaying game.

Having just finished a 2-session-spanning battle, over 4 hours of table top fighting, and getting a sense back from players that it wasn't grindy, my thoughts on avoiding this problem.

None of these avoid the rules-tinkering some do (such as reducing monster hit points). If that works for you fine, but this is about "system as written".

Be Careful with Solos and Elites; Soldiers and Brutes
- their level should not be too much over Party unless they are "story rich" or "you're supposed to just survive being in same space with them and then get out" etc.  Otherwise they risk becoming hit point whittling.

Combat Scripts and Retreating/Surrendering Foes - a combat script is useful to make use of monster tactics advice and if prepping beforehand how they combine (e.g., how they integrate their abilities as a team).  However this is also useful to note "if the two other wolves have fallen, the last wolf flees" or "flees after first time hit once bloodied".  Figure out which foes will throw down weapons and surrender.  Mechanically, I write my script in the space for the initiative sequence in my notes so that it's right there for me when it's monster's time to act.

Unbloodied Foes Spend Hit Points - consider having monsters think along lines of "until I'm bloodied this is all good, 5 hp paid to get to use my best attack sequence is sweet".  Have foes not react to marks etc. by "I don't move" but instead have them move and take the consequence whenever it makes any sort of sense particularly when it means they have better chance to do more damage (need to move to use special attack or get to soft target), this also makes marks not "they don't move" but lets them have their "other effect" at times.  This is important to keeping placement fluid and give mark-making PC's more variety for their feature.

Friendly Fire - a certain sort of evil foe shows itself by being careless of friendly fire.  A couple of its allies in the blast zone, sure it will pay that price to get 3 PC's.  Again, if they're not bloodied and particurly if they're soldiers/brutes think of this as "pain for gain".  This is also a way of showing story.  The ally the evil foe helps and is careful for is their lover, their boss, someone important; the ally the evil foe catches in blast may actually be a slave, conscript, someone happy to talk if captured.

Movement Powers - in any fight that is going to go more than 3-4 rounds, at least some foes should have some movement powers (push, slide etc.) to keep positioning fluid.  A monster that picks up and throws a PC is even better for "mixing up the battlefield" and giving a nice pulpy feel to fights.

Not Always About Fighting to Finish - a fight with a higher level elite soldier or brute in the mix (a foe who is pile of hit points to whittle) can be interesting if the point of fight is not killing that foe but getting past them, holding them off the crucial rounds while lock picked, ritual completed, villagers finish escaping across the bridge etc.  The math of this can be simple.  Say the "foes to just delay" include a couple of grindy elites, treat "bloodying elite foe" as earning the same XP as if the foe was not elite (since you did enough damage to kill the non-elite version).  This technique can introduce a foe that reappears when adventurers are higher level and more able to take them down, making their reappearance have more narrative impact.

Fight For Something - if the subject of fight is something players are invested in story or character-wise by their own choices in play, then spending more table time on it won't be begrudged.  In the 4 hour fight, the chief villain had previously ordered three PC's tortured and was possibly connected to death of a PC's father - he was just generally made himself "someone who must die" through at-table actions/revelations not "read-aloud goals" instruction.  Having foes flee when bloodied or be "not intended to beat" first time they appear feeds into creating this sort of dynamic.