Thursday, 19 December 2019

"BattleSystem 5E" revisited

Battlesystem V1 stat block
Looking at the Wikipedia page for Battlesystem, I was struck by a review comment about the V2 rules, in which the reviewer for Dragon Magazine said:
"Particularly welcome is the reduction of relevant statistics from a dozen-plus to a mere five."
Now he has a point (but as I've commented before, this comes at the price of an over-simplified buckets-of-odd-sided-dice system - in case you haven't got the message yet, I was really disappointed in BattleSystem V2). But if you look at the stat block for a BattleSystem V1 unit, and compare it to a 5E monster stat block, they actually look pretty similar barring still needing to calculate morale/discipline levels (which you still do in V2!) and figure ratio. Which kind of blows that criticism out of the water: after all, if you don't have to draw the stat blocks up because they're already there...
5E stat block

And then I looked a little closer, and realised the thing 5E stat blocks have that means you can probably get rid of the BattleSystem V1 Combat Results Table - static hits and damage.

Let's look at the old CRT. A THAC0 unit with d8 weapons is going to do between 3 and 8 HD of damage (most likely 2d6 roll is a 7, which gets us 5 HD) to its AC10 target. If that's a 1HD, 10:1 unit, that's between .3 and .8 of a figure with an expected value of .5, i.e. one hit in two from the figures in the unit.

In 5E terms each figure unit is going to have static damage of 5 and its target is going to have 5HP, or 50HP per 10:1 figure. If we rolled this up as a series of 5E combats, we'd expect 50% of them to result in a hit, which would mean we'd do 25 HP total, i.e. an expected value of .5 of a figure. That's interesting, and almost certainly not a coincidence.

Hmm. We can do something with this, surely?
 Straight line is the odds on rolling a
given number on 1d20, curved on 3d6.

We could just roll for a hit, and multiply it out adjusting for how much you hit or miss by. However, that is going to produce a lot more extreme results for (say) a unit of 10 10:1 figures than 100 individual rolls. There's an easy fix for that, though: if we swap our d20 for 3d6, it has almost the same range (3-18) and close enough to the same average (10.5) not to matter, and much fewer extreme results - see the graph.

Let's do that, then, and say that for an exact success, we hit 50% of the time, and adjust that figure by 10% for each number we hit/miss by (up to a max of 100% and a minimum of 0%). This does make it harder to hit if your target roll is well above 10 (i.e. your target has relatively high AC compared to your attack bonus) but I'm not actually sure that's an issue: you'll still do some damage.

Right: time to try a couple of examples in the good old spreadsheet.
Red-shaded cells truncate to 0. Purple column is the most likely outcome, and the green cell is the actual target number. Click for a better view.
Interesting. That looks pretty reasonable - picking out a few examples, the guards make mincemeat of the cult acolytes, the hill giants absolutely puree the guards, and guards vs bandits is slanted slightly in favour of the former. Remember that extreme outcomes are rarer - you only have just under a 5% chance of rolling a 16, for example, so there is some variance, but within reasonable bounds.


(Oh, next up: command and control and unit activation. Trust me, it'll be worth it.)

Friday, 13 December 2019

Using Battlesystem V1 in D&D 5E

BattleSystem v1 and best.
Accept no substitute!
A brief diversion from plastics on a budget, since I was thinking about what you can do with large quantities of plastics when you've bought them!

Warning, contains basic maths.

If like me you're a bit of a wargamer as well as a role-player, and like me you go waaaaaay back, you may remember TSR introducing BattleSystem. their mass combat rules, back in 1985. It was written by Douglas Niles, also responsible for a bunch of assorted Dragonlance (and other) scenarios and a number of novels. V2 came out in 1989, and had a noticeably different system, which, frankly, I hated. So we'll stick to talking about V1.

If you can find a copy, it's well worth it. Streets better than V2, if a trifle old school in its use of a combat results table, which even then was starting to drift out of the wargaming hobby. V2 moved to a buckets of dice approach, which did require you, potentially, to own lots of d8s for longsword armed units, say, which I didn't like. In this enlightened age I'd probably tweak it to add some command and control rules and initiative based movement rather than the I-Go-You-Go that's in the original rules. But the great thing it did is it allowed you to have lots of units on the table and fight them in groups without having to handle each figure in a unit individually, AND your PCs could get involved while still using the D&D rules for their actions if they needed to, and as such it ticked loads of boxes for me.

However, it is written for 1st Edition AD&D, and as such it uses old-style lower-is-better AC and THAC0 in its calculations: essentially you perform a one time calculation to determine a unit's attack rating, then subtract the target AC and add 2d6, then cross reference the number on a table against the size of damage dice the attacking unit does. This determines how many hit dice or levels of the target unit you kill per attacking figure. You remove defending figures proportionately (remember, for a unit of 1HD orcs, every figure represents 10 orcs and thus is 10HD) and if the balance is more than 1/4 of a figure, the unit gets a wound marker - two wounds = 1 kill.

Essentially, the unit's attack rating is its THAC0 (To Hit Armour Class 0, for those too young to remember 1st and 2nd edition) plus a modifier based on its figure ratio - units up to 4HD/figure are 10:1 (+0), up to level 8 5:1 (+5),  level 9+ 2:1 (+10), PCs and individual critters are 1:1 (+15) - it's a one time calculation when you create the unit.

So, as we said.
attack rating = THAC0 + ratio modifier

In 3E and beyond, of course, armour classes got flipped, so big was better, and AC0 became AC20. To hit AC20 you need a 20 with no modifiers, and your target roll in 5E effectively drops by 1 for every point of attack bonus. So your 5E THAC20 (essentially the same number as your 1E THAC0) would be 20 - your 5E attack bonus.

Your roll on the BattleSystem results table, as we said before, is (in 1st Edition speak) THACO + ratio modifier - AC + 2d6. Time for a bit of maths to convert this to 5E:

attack rating 
= THAC20 + ratio modifier
 = 20 - attack bonus + ratio modifier

So your roll on the table becomes
20 - attack bonus + ratio modifier - 1E armour class of target + 2d6

which becomes
20 - attack bonus + ratio modifier - (20 - 5th Ed armour class) + 2d6

Which, rather elegantly, simplifies the 5E version of the calculation to
armour class - attack bonus + ratio modifier + 2d6

I think we can work with this. :D

The rest of BattleSystem doesn't need much conversion: things still have levels/HD, and attacks you can measure in dice. I may give this a try, possibly with more modern turn sequencing and command and control, sometime and see if it works.

Wednesday, 11 December 2019

Plastic Miniatures on a budget - part 2: Humans

So many choices, so little time!
Oh boy. Where to start?

Obviously enough, you're spoilt rotten if you go raiding the wargames world for plastic humans. Half the fun here is deciding how your various cultures map to real-world cultures, if they do. I've restricted myself to Ancient through to Mediaeval figures for now.

It is also worth noting that a lot of the manufacturers listed below will sell you single sprues around the £5-7 mark. And if they don't, there is a thriving secondary market for them on eBay.
  • Gripping Beast do a great range of historical figures for £22 a box
    • for classic unarmoured types, there are Dark Age Warriors - 40 figures with tunic, leggings and bare (usually bearded) heads with a variety of weapons and shields. There's also a box of 30 Archers, similarly dressed, and some Dark Ages, Late Roman and Goth cavalry (12 to a box).
    • if you're looking for chainmail-wearing types (I am, as plate is rare in Altrion) you're spoilt for choice, with boxes of Saxon, Viking and Late Roman/Byzantine figures, depending on what armour, helmets and shield shapes take your fancy. They also do a box of Late Roman heavy cavalry.
    • if you want desert-dwelling types, there are three boxes of Crusades-era Arab troops, a combo box of spearmen and archers, and boxes of light and heavy cavalry.
  • Northstar do six boxes for the Frostgrave game, Soldiers, female Soldiers (the Soldiers II
    Night's Watch foot. Frostgrave soldiers
    and barbarians, and some Fireforge foot
    Sergeants, and some resin cast cloaks a
    friend had kicking around. Lots of head
    and arm swaps - many heads are actually
    from Gripping Beast Dark Ages Warriors.
    box), Cultists and Barbarians,. as well as two boxes of Wizards (male and female). The non-wizards each contain 20 figures for around £20, the wizards 8 for £15, and in all cases contain way more arms, weapons and heads (and familiars!) than you'll need. Usefully, the heads and arms can be a direct swap with the Gripping Beast range, and several others.
  • Conquest Games do a range of figures, including Norman foot and knights, and Mediaeval archers and knights. They're again £20 a box, and the cavalry are excellent value with 16 to the box. Same or similar head design as GB and Northstar, which bodes well for hacking. 
  • Warlord Games. Where to start! Imperial Romans, Celts, Britons, Greeks, Saxons, Vikings.... most boxes are around £20. Warlord's heads are a mix - if the figures were originally from the Wargames Factory ranges (Celts, Caesar's Legions, Saxons, Vikings particularly) they bought, they're a different design, but I think anything sculpted by Warlord is the same head design (the dimple between the shoulders) as everyone else and you can mix and match to taste.
  • Victrix Limited. Again, loads and loads of stuff from Greek to Saxon and Norman. Typically more expensive (£37.50), but with up to 60 figures in a box, if you happen to need a large army to go up against your PCs. Again, look for single sprue deals. Different head design to everyone else, I think.
  • Perry Miniatures. Some of the nicest sculpts by far (the Perry twins are legends in the hobby): we're also moving into the later mediaeval, as their range of useful stuff is mostly of War of The Roses and Hundred Years War figures. They also do some Mahdist Sudanese, who would make excellent native tribesmen. Typically £20 a box, 40 figures for foot, 12 cavalry. Same head design as nearly everyone else.
    Night's Watch cavalry, made up from
    a mix of Fireforge mounted Sergeants,
    with arms from their mediaeval archers
    set and more GB heads.
  • Fireforge Games. Lots of choice for the later mediaeval type - if you like classic knights in armour with surcoats etc their Templar and Teutonic Knights in their Mediaeval range, and the Knights of Albion in their Forgotten World range, are brilliant (they also do a box of four pegasus-mounted knights). Also in the Forgotten World are their Northern Kingdom range, sort of Vikings but wearing quilted armour. Same heads as Victrix, I think.
  • Mantic Games. Again,. a lot of choice here - these are largely ranges for the Kings Of War game, and they have two notable 'human' races, the Basileans, who are very much 'fantasy knights' (including some female warriors, and cavalry riding panthers!) and the Northern Alliance, who are barbarian types wrapped up well in furs. Boxes are around £20 for 20 foot, but be aware that Mantic are a law unto themselves when it comes to figure design so a) you won't be able to interconvert with anyone else without some cutting and applying green stuff, and b) some of their figure sets are made of an odd resin/plastic combo which defies normal plastic glue :D
  • Oathmark is a mass fantasy game by Osprey, with figures produced through Northstar, but it's a sufficiently separate range I thought I'd list it separately. The one human unit so far is £25 for thirty medium armoured quasi-mediaeval figures which do look different to most of the others: largely studded armour and square shields. Being Northstar, they have the standard dimple between the shoulders to accept the head, so swap away!
  • Shieldwolf Miniatures ran a Kickstarter for a range of female shieldmaiden infantry/rangers and paladins in hard plastic a few years ago. They seem to be a bit hard to come by, but are available on eBay for around £25-30 for a box of 20. Marks for being predominantly sensibly armoured (like the Frostgrave soldiers, and despite what the original KS art showed), but they do have a somewhat different way of fitting together - it does look like you should be able to swap heads with the Frostgrave ones with a little bit of filing, which given the range has some brilliant helmetless heads with windblown hair, might be useful. Watch out if buying single sprues as the heads are all on one of the two different sprues for the shieldmaidens. I'm grabbing a box for my world's White Company right now.
  • Games Workshop. Kind of the elephant in the room here: with the change to Age of Sigmar being a skirmish game, there are fewer unit boxes available, and they tend to be wince-inducingly pricey. Their Bretonnians from Warhammer Fantasy Battles are good fantasy humans, but even the eBay secondary market for sprues suffers from hugely inflated prices (£99 for 12 figures? C'mon!)
  • Zvezda Ring of Rule series. Long out of print, but they used to do a box of nine female figures on pegasi, which I would love to get my hands on, if anyone has one! (Edit: Amazon.DE has some in stock for a not-unreasonable price (£26 including postage).
  • HAT do a range of 28mm sets: most of what are useful to us are based on the El Cid era in Spain. They are, if I recall, soft polythene (like old Airfix figures) so take a bit of persuading to hold paint (I suggest brushing on a coat of PVA first and let it dry), and they are somewhat spindly and a little undersized compared to most of the above.
  • CMON A Song Of Ice And Fire miniatures game. These are technically 32mm: a wide range of different looking fantasy human figures. Most useful for our purposes are the expansion boxes, which are £25-30, and contain 12 figures in two different poses, typically. Worth a look if they fill a needed gap, but on the pricey end. 
There you have it. Next up, humanoids - elves, dwarves, goblins. Probably a lot of the same manufacturers again, in fact :D

A side note - I am aware that quite a few of these manufacturers, and others, do metal miniatures. I'm going to cover the best of those in another series. 

Tuesday, 10 December 2019

Plastic miniatures on a budget - part 1: introduction

A very hastily painted set of just-about
tabletop standard (if you don't look too
 hard) Northstar Frostgrave cultists, as
acolytes of the cult of Bhelashara in
my campaign - I will be touching them
 up later, but in my defence they arrived
90 minutes before the session started!
I am, as I've mentioned in the past, a wargamer and also something of a railway modeller as well as a roleplayer. I do get a bit of a kick out of noticing the difference between the hobbies in various areas (wargamers' approach to scenery vs. how railway modellers do the same, for example - us wargamers have things to learn there!).

When it comes to figures, I find it fascinating how much people seem to be willing to pay, not just for 'hero' figures (which I can kind of understand, especially if you want something to represent a particular character) but also for the things you need bunches of, like town guards, cultists, orcs, skeletons etc. Now admittedly, some of the attraction for that is that (in the case of the Icons of The Realms and Pathfinder ranges that WizKids do) is that they're prepainted, but trust me when I tell you that you can do as well as the average WizKids paint job for not much effort bar a steady hand. That's another thread for later (my wargaming friends would laugh at me presuming to teach painting, as I freely admit to being rubbish, but): there are a lot of techniques around that side of the hobby that make 'tabletop standard' figures a piece of cake, even for near-sighted me. And as a friend of mine with whom I used to podcast often said, "It's just a token". Yes, people will look at them when you first pop them on the table, but as long as they look the part from 2' away. that's all that will really matter once people get stuck into the combat.

I dunno about you, but I find myself quite often throwing a bunch of various similar mooks at a party, and paying however much to WizKids to guarantee to get (say) five matching guards or picking them up on eBay gets pricey. With that in mind, what we're looking at in this series is ways of sidestepping to the wargames side of things to get a bunch of near identical figures on a budget. There are a considerable number of manufacturers out there who do boxed sets of 20-30 multi-pose/multi-part miniatures for around the £20/US$30 or less mark. Ranges are both historical and fantasy, but don't turn your nose up at the historical - lots of Dark Ages and Arab figures, as well as armoured knights and the like, will make great guards or bandits.

The other great advantage you will get is that not only are they multi-pose, but you can do head/arm swaps within (and sometimes outside of) a manufacturer's range. My Dark Ages British wargames force, for example, has warriors made up with arms and bodies from one box, heads from one of two depending on whether I want them helmeted, and shields from another. There are, actually, only about three ways of attaching a figure's head to its body, and there's quite a bit of commonality of design between manufacturers, especially if they use the same sculptor or duplication service (here in the UK, a lot of companies use Renedra, and that seems to make heads particularly very interchangeable).

One other note - scale. You'll see most wargames figures described as 28mm. This can be very variable, but technically that's from the top of the base to the eye (thus allowing for silly headgear). Now, some manufacturers do have interesting ideas of how big a millimetre is, but in general, 28mm wargames figures will match up to heroic minis: they might look a little small (my Tom Meier-scultped Jon Snow from Dark Sword's George RR Martin Masterworks range does tower 3 or 4 mm above the rest of my (Northstar and Fireforge) Night's Watch army), but they're going to be close enough. And yes, I know, you might not use all the box. But even so....

Next up: plastic humans of all kinds.

Sunday, 8 December 2019

Session Zero... well, -ish...

A surprisingly intimidating spot to be sat when
it's been 22 years :D
All the cool kids are doing it, as evidenced by the proliferation of blog posts and YouTube videos about 'Session Zero' - that's the opening session of your campaign where you lay out the ground rules, work out what everyone wants from the game, potentially generate characters and figure out what variant of 'you're all sitting in the tavern, when...' you want to start with this time. (Just kidding re the latter, but you get my drift.)

I'm kind of lucky in that I've DMed pretty much the same couple of dozen folks in essentially two different communities in the past, and we all very much had evolved to have the same expectations of how the game was going to work. Even my play-by-email party[1] was a mix of people I'd played with before, either by email or face-to-face. So, to a degree I wasn't really conscious of the concept: certainly for my various Cambridge groups it was "who's DMing for this stretch, what level is it, where in which world is it set, what night are we playing, do we start after Dr. Who[2] or not :D?"

Coming back to things after 20 some years it was a bit different: I know all my players - one's a colleague of my wife, one is my wife, and the other four are friends from Peterborough Wargames Club, all of whom I've gamed with for a goodly while. But only Anne (my wife) knows the world, all bar one haven't played D&D 5E before and for half of them its only their second or third RPG.

I sort of had a session zero, I guess. A lot of it happened by email, and by me sharing around notes on the setting on Google Docs. Each player came separately to generate their character, each got 300-1000 words of background, depending on what they'd told me about what they wanted to play. Basically, we discussed the kind of character they wanted in terms of class and abilities, and then we'd kind of bounce around ideas for backstory and where in the world their character was from. Ambar, the city the campaign is set in, is one of the two biggest ports on the Meral Sea (the big inland sea on the map you can see in the photo top right), and is a real cultural melting pot, so pretty much anything and everything was possible, with the caveat that my world of Altrion is pretty humano-centric. As it turned out, all bar one of the PCs are in fact human.

As I said, each got a chunk of backstory, part prose, part notes, that we bounced around a little more - this usefully allowed me to work in some long-term campaign lore and plot that various of them know bits of. (It also allowed me ask Anne to play the party cleric, since she helped create the world and the Nine gods most of the PCs worship, and isn't fumbling to know what she knows and what she shouldn't know, even after two decades :D)

That usefully got me, more by accident than design, to a point where S and B had probably met in the Temple infirmary with the cleric C, S had travelled to Ambar with K, probably as short-term protection for a caravan owned by B's boss. A has been looking for work as a hired sword and L is an ice mage who, since he arrived, has been a useful resource for merchants in temperate Ambar who need to keep things fresh.

It was thus pretty easy to have them all bar C meet up with B's employer, and be introduced to C and her high Priest, who needed their help. Didn't feel stretched or railroaded in any way, although of course it helps that the players are all willing to be a little bit accommodating to say 'sure, why wouldn't I hire on with this merchant as opposed to any other'.

So, off we went. I'm, by my own admission, not an expert on 5E, but hey, it's just like learning another wargames rule set, helped by S's player who DMs her own 5E campaign, and to whom I gave carte blanche to remind me when I forgot or didn't know stuff. The session broke up into about 45 mins of meta stuff, introductions and the like, about the same of discussing the request from C's high Priest, maybe 30 mins of investigation, a 10 min break, an hour's combat (which I really wanted to get into the first session) and a very entertaining half hour moral and practical debate among the party of what they did with the three surviving cultists! And left them with a teaser, namely a piece of paper with writing none of them can translate. Yet.

  • I was meaning to do spell and special ability/feat cards for everyone: definitely need to before next time;
  • I may also provide everyone with a combat actions QRS card;
  • an initiative/hits manager app is really handy. I'm using ProDND Initiative Tracker, at least for now, which seems to do everything I want.

We actually went further than I planned, but since my planning consisted of about 2000 words of deep background and 4 lines of notes... I seem to (still, fortunately) work best when I plan the highspots and improv the rest as we go.

Next session Jan 4th.

[1] OK, OK, it is up online. Go do a Google Groups search for "Midnight's Bane" in the Usenet[3] group
[2] The original series[3] - Sylvester McCoy in this case
[3] ask someone older :D

Thursday, 28 November 2019

The Bookshelf of Lost Treasures

Ok - not so much lost as forgotten, perhaps. I've been sorting through various stuff in our rather cluttered music room, which has floor to ceiling shelves along about 15' of wall on both sides. So, yes, it's also technically our library.

Setting aside the entire wall of SF and Fantasy, there's two 4' stretches of shelf that I've been hunting through for inspiration and the like. One is mostly AD&D 2E box sets and TSR games, so there's both the main Spelljammer boxes, the Greyhawk box, Battlesystem V1 (yay) with all the counters and stuff, and Battlesystem V2 (ohh dear, oh dear, TSR, what were you thinking?), the City System and Castles boxes and heaven knows what else. The other stretch of shelf has AD&D and other hardbacks and supplements - again, stuff I'd thought I'd sold when I shifted a large stack of D&D and Traveller scenarios and handbooks at a UK Dragonmeet back in the early 2000s.

Apparently not.

Odd things turned up like this.... intact and definitely unused (since I never played MERP), barring a slight crease on one corner where it had obviously been shuffled around on the shelf once too often.

Unused to the extent I didn't know there was a fold out double-sided map in there until I posted the cover image on Twitter and a friend asked!

On top of that there's some interesting stuff I need to at least skim for the current campaign, like the Al-Qadim setting book and the Dungeon Master's Design Kit (which I thought was a very underrated book). The point of the search, though, was the pile of ring binders that were acting as a bookend for that lot. Most of them are stuff for Play By Mail stuff I used to play, but, as well as a couple of binders for the Altrion campaign that I've been scanning in and sharing with my old players for a while, there's an old folder from my Uni days when I was DMing a campaign in the shared world several of us worked on.

Oh my.

First off, it has some Tolkien Elvish runes on the front, clearly from when I was more practiced at English to Tengwar transliteration. Going to need to figure out what the heck they say!

Also, flicking through, apparently I actually pre-wrote scenarios in those days, rather than improvised off a page of very rough notes! Three of them aren't bad at all. I may actually take advantage of some of the excellent advice Cody from Taking 20 has just posted in his latest video and see if I can't tidy them up and convert to 5E for publication under the OGL when I have a moment (there's a wargames supplement that has to come first or various people will probably kill me!).

I am, though, amused that while two of them are quite short and neatly self-contained encounters with a sensible background and rationale for why everything is where it is, the big quest-y dungeon crawl, while it has some rather nice pieces of design for the cave system and temples, and a very nice set of NPCs, appears to have had no rational thought given as to why the whole cavern/temple complex was there! Dear oh dear.

If it turned up in a commercial scenario these days I'd be somewhat unimpressed - sure, old school D&D dungeons never seemed to have much in the way of explanation for why someone had decided to live underground and build a temple (Who to? No idea! It doesn't say!) off a rambling cave complex, but given this was the keystone quest of the first party I ever DMed, it deserved, and deserves, better, I think.

Thursday, 14 November 2019

Character Creation

Look! Dice!
I am, before I'm done, going to be running three campaigns set in my world of Altrion. Two involve resurrecting (in the meta sense :D) old parties, one a face to face group, the other play-by-email (which will probably end up play-by-Google-Docs), and the third is a new party set somewhere across the other side of the world.

I've promised at least one reader an explanation of play-by-Google-Docs, as I've been in a largely systemless campaign doing that for most of the past decade, but that'll come later. I'm also putting off converting the older face-to-face group's 2E characters, although I have reached the decision that trying to match stats and abilities exactly is not going to work, so we're going to aim for characters that feel right.

So - the new party. Great fun, as it's a brilliant way to get my head round 5E. All the players (barring my wife) are younger than most of my dice (:D) and all but one haven't played 5E, Two of them are DMs, and have said they're interested to see how an old school DM does it. Thanks. I think :D

Things I've learned so far:

  • There aren't enough backgrounds for my world :D Probably inevitable, and I have managed to fit most of the characters in with existing D&D Beyond backgrounds (in a couple of cases rewriting backgrounds from the Sword Coast book).
  • Having an original world with a rich background that I know well is such a blast. Being able to pull in existing story and locations into character backgrounds is really cool, especially when you can hand a player over a thousand words of backstory that his character was involved in. Amusingly, writing that gave me an idea for what the play-by-Docs party is going to be doing next.
  • You need to be careful with D&D Beyond custom content - there are places where there is no error checking when you type into fields, and (for example) when you type 12 into a 'spell level' field because you mistakenly think its 'caster level', the 'spells' tab on the resulting sheet causes the site to crash!
  • I wish Altrion had less than 16 gods. It's a LOT of custom subclasses, and while the forms for designing that are mostly OK, it can involve a lot of typing.
  • From my early attempts at converting older characters - some things just don't translate into D&D Beyond - the classic AD&D longsword +1/+3 vs undead, for example is impossible to get into the system in such a way that both sets of to hit and damage bonuses appear separately in the attacks tab.
More later. I'm hoping to start blogging more regularly from here on in.

Friday, 4 October 2019

Review: Feed Me Games

If you've been around Twitter or the right parts of Facebook or other social media, you will have noticed mention of a new gaming site - Feed Me Games.

Essentially, it aims to pull together games of all kinds (roleplayers, wargamers, boardgamers) onto one social media site, free from spam, harassment and general idiocy. Since I fit all three of the first categories (and hopefully none of the second three :D), I signed up - you can find me there, predictably enough, as TroubleAtTheMill.

What do I think?

Mostly, I think it suffers from not having hit critical mass yet - starting this kind of thing is always difficult, as without enough people interacting, it won't take off. Witness Google+, which, with a much less laudable and focussed aim and a much bigger company behind it, never really took off, and ditto Google Wave (which I think was criminally underused and absolutely brilliant, and I wish Google had kept it going, but that's by the by). Traffic is slowly ramping up - my D&D 5E discussion group is acquiring a half dozen or so members a day.

It's kind of a bit of everything - it looks and feels as if it's derived from Facebook, with a front page news feed of all your interesting stuff, plus groups, personal blogs, messages and events - and ads, which might make it the one social media site on which I wouldn't bitch about ads, because they're actually relevant. It's not perfect, and I think jaytee and his partner are well aware of that - there are always going to be teething problems (trust me, I'm a web developer) with a site like this - but what there is for the most part clean, pretty robust, properly secure and usable.

I know there's already plenty of places for us gamers to be social - Twitter, Facebook, Blogger etc. I'm loath to move lock stock and barrel to  FMG (hell, I'm damn proud of my page view count here!), but I do think it has the potential to be a good home for discussions, and for cross-pollination between the various strands of the gaming hobby. I certainly intend to give it my support, and I'd like to encourage folks reading this to do so as well: if enough of us do, it has the potential to be a really good place.

[Note: this is going to be one of the very few posts I cross-post verbatim to Trouble At T'Mill]

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

Creating NPCs

An NPC. Can't tell you much more
about her because my players may
read this blog :D
Inspired by a video from Cody on Taking 20, on six questions to ask when creating characters, as well as some of the prompts provided when creating characters on WorldAnvil, I was made to think about a similar set of questions when fleshing out an NPC, particularly one around whom campaign arcs revolve.

I don't know about you, but my best NPCs come by taking a trope or a single question (the WorldAnvil Discord channel prompts can be very good for that), and then walking with it. TVTropes can be great for this, or even just fastening on a character from a TV show, movie or book that appeals, and working from that.

The trick, though, is to delve a bit deeper and flesh them out to something beyond that - I jokingly refer to this as 'filing off the serial numbers': essentially, taking the trope and making it not just a generic example of the type, or equally taking the character and making it not instantly recognisable as the source character. So - what questions do I ask myself?

What are their short term and long term goals?

The long term goal has the potential to inform a campaign arc - so, for example, it could be revenge, or getting their family's honour back, or removing someone off the throne, or... you get the idea. But their short term goal is going to tell you what happens next. This is the one you keep revising as you go, as a set of steps (sometimes somewhat wayward ones) on the way to their long term goals.

Who or what are they loyal to and why?

This is a great one - particularly if it conflicts with their goals. For example, consider a master thief whose long term goal is to get rich enough to pay off some loanshark, and is loyal to someone who they could rob for a sizeable chunk of the money. Do they? Or the follower of an evil cult, from a family that teaches all of its members to value family loyalty above all else, and one of whom runs the city they're preying on. And there may be more than one answer, of course.
This can lead to some great role-play, as, say, if the players learn enough to know there's a potential conflict, they can work to put the NPC in a position where they have to face it and make a choice. And if they're a villain, and you're a fan of redemption arcs (me, I love me a good redemption story)...
Speaking of family...

Who are (or were) their parents?

I confess to borrowing this one from Cody, because he's dead right. Parents play a huge part in making a character who and what they are, by their presence or absence and their behaviour.

What's their attitude to people who are of no immediate use or interest to them?

Always a fun one - it's said you can tell a lot about a person by how they deal with this kind of person. Cody's question for PCs is 'are they merciful?': this is kind of stretching things a bit further. All manner of answers, too - they could just ignore them, they could be very nice just in case they need support later...

What differs between their inward and outward behaviour and demeanour?

After you've answered the above, you'll have a better shot at this one: not everyone's outward demeanour matches what's going on in their head. Is there a conflict? Do they (say) hate having to be nice to people? Do they hate having to be nasty to people?

What do they look like? Who's playing them in the movie of the campaign?

This one, I admit, doesn't work for everyone. I'm a very visual person, though, and I find it really helps me to portray the character if I can 'see' them in my mind's eye. (A little Google and photo editing work means you can show that to the players as well). This also gives you the opportunity to fake out the players if you need to - if the character looks like X from TV show Y, that doesn't mean they'll necessarily act like them.

Anyway - there's a bunch of questions to ask when creating an NPC. Thoughts, further suggestions and comments welcome.

Saturday, 28 September 2019

Creating Cleric domains

I'm busy working my way through the 16 cleric domains needed for Altrion in 5E. This, it transpires, is not easy. Fortunately most (but not all) of them are based on existing ones, but they're all going to require some tweaking, and getting the presentation on D&D Beyond up to the standard of the system-provided ones takes a bit of effort. This probably explains why I'm asking questions on the Discord channel and firing off enhancement requests/suggestions as I go.

All grumbling aside, this (the whole creation of the things that make my world my world) is one of the things I love about RPGs. I also married someone who's possibly even more detail-obsessed than I am, so I know I can farm stuff out to her as well.

Thursday, 19 September 2019

Campaign Preparation

I'm finally starting a new (5E) campaign set in my world of Altrion after about 25 years.

Man, but there are more useful tools than there were back then :D Google Docs for background documents is a godsend, as is Wonderdraft, and I'm slowly trying to braindump all the stuff I know and/or can salvage from emails and scanned in paperwork into a hyperlinked form in WorldAnvil. And boy is there a lot of it!

And equally, boy do I wish I'd backed up my old Mac from a couple of decades ago, as there's a bunch of stuff I'd dearly love to have back :( Backups are a rant for another day, though (or go search my wargaming blog).

First steps, then:

  • Write up a background for the players, so they get an idea of where their character are and what the world is like - done - as ever, this results in a bunch of creativity and adding notes to various locations as I go :D
  • Bullet-point the arc for the campaign (with the inevitable acceptance that the players can and probably will go off-arc) - in my head
  • Design a few background NPCs - working on it
One thing I did find myself doing, which I've commented on before: in D&D, the rules and the setting are distinct. Those bits of the books that cover how combat works, stats, dice, skills, etc are rules. Things like races and classes are definitely setting, not rules. Yes, there's kind of an over-arching D&D multiverse, and some of that informs the rules to a degree, but you can (and I'm going to) say 'no, this doesn't exist in the world I'm DMing'.

Thursday, 13 June 2019

Campaign Tools: Wonderdraft

I can't tell a lie - I am a map junkie. Have been since I was about 10, and my father taught me (by the simple process of handing me a map) to navigate, and also bought a very nice coffee table hardcover about Ordnance Survey maps.

And then I picked up the Lord of the Rings. Maps. Lots of maps. Oh my.

Hat tip to Tim, my DM for most of my university days, who had a big sprawling world that I even got to create a small part of, and led, in the end, to the world of Altrion.

Altrion existed, for the longest time, on first 36, then 42, then 48 A4 sheets of hand-drawn and coloured (badly) paper. Some of them are a touch faded, and they've all been tucked away in a folder under my wife's jewellery case (don't ask :D) for about a decade.

Around 25 years ago, I acquired a copy of Campaign Cartographer, and used it to create a computerised copy of the map - essentially one A4 sheet gridded with smaller rectangles so I could trace the large-scale details of each paper map onto it. CC is all very lovely, but it is Windows, and I'm... not. So, nice thought it was, I didn't expend the amount of effort needed to replicate all the details in digital form.

Fast forward to this year, when for various reasons (largely to do with watching Critical Role by accident), I was inspired to pick up the long-stalled campaign. And one of the things I really wanted to do was find and salvage the map. In conversation on the D&D Beyond Discord (of which more later), someone pointed me at Wonderdraft.

Oh my.

So. Wonderdraft is cross-platform (Linux/Mac/Windows), which is a win, although it hasn't integrated a lot of the native file handling dialogs, so the interface with the file system does feel a little clunky. It also relies on you having a machine with a pretty beefy (quick for 2015, say) GPU and processor, and memory doesn't hurt.

Those are probably the only things that could be considered downsides, and believe me there aren't many. Essentially it's a themed paint program designed for drawing maps, with extra support for symbol libraries and paths, random terrain generation, tracing off an overlay image...

To give you an idea: the map to the right was traced off the CC map above. In essence:
  • I traced the coast outlines using the 'raise land' tool. This is a variable size brush that paints solid ground, for want of another way to describe it. The edge of the brush is 'wiggly' so that coastlines aren't smooth, and you can control both the brush size and the amount of roughness, for a tradeoff between detail, cornering ability and speed. There's also a lower land tool for fixing mistakes, adding water, etc.
  • I filled in the rest of the land with the big land brush - quicker and easier once you've done the coasts as it doesn't chew GPU/CPU drawing the wiggly bits
  • I switched to the symbol tool, selected a suitable mountain symbol set, and 'painted' the mountains - it's like an 'image hose' brush in the way of Photoshop, except that if you have a set of related symbols it'll paint a different one each time, with the rate of deposition, scale etc being selectable.
  • Same again for the woods.
  • I went back to the land menu, and selected the paintbrush tool. This changes the colour of the land under it to the one you select, and has size and opacity options as well as three different brush heads that control, if you like, spatter. This allows you to feather colours together.
  • I also selected a suitable mountain colour and used the paintbrush to colour the mountains. 
  • Finally, I added country names with the label tool.
Total time? Two hours. Colour me very impressed. 

Things I could have done, but didn't:
  • Used the river tool to draw rivers. Obviously enough, this has controllable 'meanderyness' and width
  • Ditto the path tool for roads.
  • Added town symbols from the symbol library.
I'm currently working on the bigger map - Wonderdraft will handle 8192 pixels square, which works out at about 4'6" at 150dpi. Plenty big enough. 

In short - it's an excellent tool. The Discord community (which every decent project seems to have these days) is friendly and helpful, and there are all manner of add-on symbol and theme libraries available on including ones that allow you to do top-down mapping for cities or battle boards.

For $30, it's ridiculously good value. If you need to draw world maps, go buy :D

Tuesday, 4 June 2019

Is it ok if I....?

Yes of course it is. It's your campaign.

The subject of this post is probably one of the most common questions I've heard since I've been active on the D&D Beyond Discord server (where, incidentally, you can find me as FleetfootMike).

I'm very glad of the new upsurge in popularity of D&D, which I guess is at least in part due to the likes of Critical Rôle and other live streamed games giving folks a feel for how much fun it can be. But... next step, you go out and buy the books. Which is getting on for a thousand pages (in the Core books) of what it's very tempting to think of as rules. And that's before you even start with a published scenario. Even if you buy the starter set, they're called the Basic Rules.

The problem is it's not always clear where the rules stop and the setting starts, especially if you're a newcomer. The way combat works? Obviously rules. The available character races? Actually, no. They're part of the core D&D setting, and if you want to create a world where, say, tieflings and dragonborn aren't a thing? Knock yourself out.

Equally, you want to tweak a scenario to fit your world? Go right ahead. There's any number of corners of Altrion (my world) that have had published D&D scenarios pulled and prodded until some or all of them fit to my satisfaction. At the bare minimum, my world has different gods, so I'd change that in a commercial product to make it tie in.

The one thing to remember while you're doing it: communicate. Make sure your players know, for example, that halfling PCs in your world would have had to come from one small country way over on the east of the continent, and that there are, say, no gnomes at all[1]. Manage expectations, give them reasons. You are essentially providing the players' view on the world: your rôle is to make sure they know what their characters would know when it matters.

These are in fact the two most common things I'm going to say on this blog, I expect, so we better get used to them.
  1. It's your world. 
  2. You have the responsibility of being the players' window onto it.

[1] I'm not prejudiced against gnomes, honest. They just didn't feel like they fit in my setting. 

Monday, 3 June 2019


The world of Altrion (from a 25 year old set of hand-drawn
maps on 42 A4 sheets, rendered in Wonderdraft)
So.. um... hi.

I'm Mike, and I used to be a DM.

Further back than I care to remember, I ran a huge sprawling AD&D 2nd Edition campaign, across at one point four parties (including one by email) plus provided advice for a fifth run by one of my players in the same setting. This is the world of Altrion, of which you'll no doubt be hearing more later. Some of the email campaign logs made it up onto Usenet as the Midnight's Bane campaign - you can find these via Google Groups.

I'm back largely because I happened (as you do) on an episode of Critical Role, and was hooked both by Matt Mercer's DMing style (definitely my kind of DM) and the feel of 5th Edition. While I looked at 3rd/3.5, I decided it was too much of a fantasy skirmish wargame for me, but 5E definitely feels right.

What are you going to see in this blog? General thoughts on the art DMing, converting 2E to 5E, email/play by Google Docs, cartography (I'm a huge fan of Wonderdraft having just discovered it), DnD Beyond (becoming the game aid I wish I'd written), and so on. I don't know how regularly I'll be posting, but I wanted to have a place to talk about these things that isn't my wargames blog. [For those interested, I'm also a historical wargamer, blogger, podcaster and writer at Trouble At T'Mill.]

Anyway - enjoy!