Monday, May 30, 2011

Black Powder

This is one of those posts I started a while ago, last June to be precise. I read the rules to Black Powder around the same time that the rules for Warhammer Fantasy 8th Edition came out, which is why I make a few comparisons between the two. I like Black Powder a lot, although it's unlikely I'll ever get to play. I'll get into why that's the case later on.

Black Powder is a game covering the black powder era of warfare during the 18th and 19th Centuries. This covers many famous conflicts including the American Revolutionary War, the Napoleonic Wars, the American Civil War, the Crimean War, the Zulu War, and many others.

The game is written by Rick Priestly and Jervis Johnson, best known for their association with Games Workshop. With this in mind I expected to encounter a typical GW style game, and instead found myself pleasantly surprised to find something quite different. To start with, there's no "buckets o' dice" mechanic here. Most combats look like they won't involve any more than half a dozen dice per side to resolve.

There's also none of the typical "tabletop carnage" involved in GW games, where players find themselves removing models from the table nearly as fast as they put them on there in the first place. Casualties are kept track of by placing tokens next to a unit, not removing models from it. Models don't come off the table until a unit is completely routed, at which point the entire unit is removed. I like this because after taking the time to assemble and paint an army, you want those models to actually stay on the table for a while.

Unfortunately, there are several factors that will keep me from ever playing this game. The biggest one is simply that I don't know anyone else around here who would be enthusiastic enough about playing to keep me enthusiastic enough to build an army. I'm past the point of being able to be the driving force behind generating interest in a new miniatures game. I just don't have the free time to evangelize for a new game.

Second, I don't have an army for the period. I'd love to put together a Civil War force using some of the Perry Miniatures plastics, but without someone to play against I don't really need to start another miniatures project that I would never finish.

Third, I don't have a big enough table. The game calls for tables ranging from 9' x 5' to 12' x 6', which are quite a bit larger than the standard 6' x 4' tables that are available around here. I have the room to put a bigger table in the garage, but would have to assemble it first.

So, why do I want to play this game instead of a more popular "big army" game like Warhammer Fantasy? There's a few reasons. First is the "herohammer" factor. In Fantasy it often all comes down to the character models, and this doesn't appear to be any less true in 8th edition. If I'm playing an army game, I want the army to matter. If I want individuals to be the deciding factor then I'll play a skirmish game.

Second, there's command and control. The one place that individuals should matter, is the one that Fantasy doesn't even model: command and control. With a few special exceptions based on the army you're playing, units in Fantasy do exactly what you want them to. That rarely happened in history, and I've found it's generally more entertaining to play a game where things don't always go according to plan.

I do realize that Warhammer Fantasy has a basic morale system, but as it exists in that game, I don't really count that as command and control. Units still do exactly what you want them to up to the point that they run away after taking too much damage and failing a morale check.

Third, the army construction. I want to play a game where you win on the tabletop, not in a database. I'm really starting to dislike army construction as a part of the game. I'm starting to prefer scenario based games where the forces are either based on history, or simply designated by the scenario designer.

These issues are absent in Black Powder. There are no "heroes" modeled in Black Powder. There is a command and control system that can lead to units not following your orders, and instead doing something else entirely. There are some very basic point values in an appendix for judging balance, but Black Powder is not an army construction game. It's a game intended to be played using individual scenarios either designed by a neutral umpire, or mutually created by the opposing players.

Overall, it's designed to be fun. Invite some friends over, have a few beers, and play out a scenario not to win at all costs, but just to see what happens.

Not that I don't like a competitive game, but it seems like all there is to the Warhammer games most of the time is the competition. Black Powder seems to bring more than that to the table.

While it's unlikely that I'll ever play Black Powder, the designers recently released Hail Caesar, an adaptation of the Black Powder rules to the ancients period. Given that I already have a partly assembled Roman army, it's much more likely that I'll eventually be able to get a game in using Hail Caesar, although it's still a longshot.

I don't have a copy of Hail Caesar yet, but after I get a chance to read it I'll try to post my thoughts on it, and I'll try to do it less than a year after I read it.

Where are my Posts?

My posts have been far less frequent this year than last year, but if anything I've actually been commenting on more things, it just hasn't been here. If you're crazy enough to care about what I have to say you should also check out my posts on and my comments on games on My comments there are a lot shorter than my posts here, but I try to make at least some comment on every book I read and every game I play.

I also have a number of drafts saved that I haven't posted for one reason or another. Some are simply rants that I had to write, but thought twice about posting. Others have a timeliness factor that has long since passed. Still, there are several that I hope to post once I get around to either finishing them or doing an edit.

One of the reasons that some of these posts are languishing in the draft folder is that I'm more self-conscious about what I post since linking this blog to my Facebook account. Before, only those that chose to subscribe to my blog were hit with updates, but now everyone on my facebook list, a minority of which are gamers, get spammed with my updates. I thought about un-linking the blog, but response I got to that idea indicates that some of my Facebook friends follow the blog through Facebook now, so I'm going to hold off on doing that.

Instead, I'm going to try to get over my self-consciousness and just post to the blog. If you're one of my Facebook friends and you've never found anything posted here interesting, then you may just want to ignore my NetworkedBlogs updates. It should be simple enough to do.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Force on Force

This is an interesting set of skirmish level rules for modern warfare. I'm not sure how accurate my information is on the history of this game, but from what I've seen it appears to have its origins as Ambush Alley. Ambush Alley is apparently a game designed to model the kind of modern asymmetrical conflicts typified by recent US conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, where conventional forces find themselves fighting against irregular insurgents. Force on Force takes those rules and expands them to allow for more conventional conflicts between two regular forces, or conflicts with a mix of regular and irregular forces on either or both sides. The new Force on Force book from Osprey appears to be the second edition of this game, with the first published by Ambush Alley games.

The new book is the same kind of high quality production that Osprey became known for with Field of Glory, at least in terms of materials. Sturdy hardcover binding, full color printing, and lavish illustrations. Although I haven't playtested them, the rules seem just as solid as the physical book. Keep in mind that the game is purely scenario driven, and not point based. The rules are meant to reflect the realities of combat in a playable manner, not provide balanced matchups for tournament play. They appear to have accomplished that goal.

Unfortunately, the book is marred by poor editing. Numerous minor typos can be found scattered throughout the book. There's also a handful of more serious errors that will require errata. Most notably two missing charts which have already been posted on Ambush Alley's site in an errata document. Fortunately, both charts are related to special rules unlikely to come up in the average game.

There are three editors listed, but two of them appear to be one of the author and his wife. I hope that in the future Osprey will consider bringing in a professional game editor to do at least one pass though their core rules, if not every supplement they publish. Such an editor would have caught most of the problems with this book before it went to press.

Still, I'm happy with my purchase. A solid set of rules with all the data you need to play scenarios set in the "modern" era, basically from the first Gulf War forward. Supplements should push this back to WWII. There's already a Vietnam supplement planned for later in the year.

It uses a unique initiative system where one side controls the initiative throughout a turn, while the other side can only react to the actions of the first player. Whether or not the non-initiative side can gain the initiative in the next turn depends on the scenario being played, and the results of the current turn. This appears to result in a game that is much more interactive than the typical igo/ugo, or even that found in alternating unit activations.

The overall design is focused on affects rather than causes. Much of the hardware is abstracted. There are no lists of small arms. What counts is the skill and morale of the soldiers fighting, not their gear. If there is a true disparity in gear (such as a unit with bolt action rifles facing one with assault rifles) that will be reflected in die modifiers, either to the number of dice rolled, or the type of dice rolled.

Speaking of dice, the game does not limit itself to the d6. It uses d6s, d8s, d10s and d12s; and recommends you have at least ten of each. The "nearly universal" mechanic for using these dice is 4+ for success, with the type and number of dice being used the main differentiator in quality, rather than a host of + or - modifiers (although they occasionally creep in).

The core rules are for infantry, but the game also covers vehicles, airmobile operations, air support, artillery, and a host of special situations. These latter include such things as cavalry, IEDs, civilians on the battlefield, and much more.

Admittedly, I'm not sure I'm fully comfortable playing games set in most of this time period. A lot of people have issues with wargames that cover recent conflicts, and my own comfort zone begins roughly a decade in the past. For example, I'm more or less OK with playing out scenarios set in the first Gulf War, but scenarios set during the invasion of Iraq in 2003 (covered by the first scenario book for the game) are still a little iffy for me, while the current conflict in Afghanistan is pretty much right out (covered by the second scenario book out for the game).

As a result, I probably won't get a chance to give this rules set any actual play until they start covering some of the less recent conflicts.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Third Time's the Charm

HeroQuest has had a bit of a rocky history. The name goes back to 1979 when it was first mentioned as an upcoming product in the original RuneQuest rules. That product never came out, and ten years later the name was taken by Milton Bradley for the board game they published in cooperation with Games Workshop. Another decade passed and a set of RPG rules was created that the designers finally felt was worthy of the HeroQuest name. Unfortunately, Hasbro still held the rights to the name having bought out Milton Bradley, so they called it Hero Wars instead. Finally, when the second edition came out a few years later, Hasbro had let the rights to the name lapse, so it was snatched up and the first HeroQuest RPG was published (although it was actually the second edition of the game).

HeroQuest and I have also had a rocky history. I have never read the Hero Wars book, although I do own some of the supplements for it. I have read the second edition. I read it about five years ago, before I had any experience with narrative style RPGs. I read the whole book, but really didn't "get" the system. The only reason it didn't get sold off prior to my marriage was because of the information in it about Glorantha.

In brief, Glorantha is a fantasy world that is distinctly different from most other such worlds in gaming. It is a world where magic is commonplace and where mythology accurately portrays the world around you. It's a setting that I've always had an interest in, and is the reason I became interested in HeroQuest in the first place.

Two years ago I decided to give the book a second look. Largely this was because I was starting to become more acquainted with narrative style games and remembered enough of what I'd read to recognize that HeroQuest fell into this category. Before starting in for a second read, I checked online for any errata that was out there, and I discovered that a new edition of HeroQuest had just come out. I decided not to re-read the second edition and ordered a copy of the third edition instead.

Once I had a copy of the third edition I started reading it, but only got a few pages in before giving up. This new third edition was still something I didn't quite "get" and the fact that the rules had been stripped out of the Gloranthan setting and made into a generic rules set meant that I had less interest in it.

Finally, about a month ago I decided to give the book one more try. This time I made it all the way through, and have come out rather impressed by the game. I attribute my success in making my way through the book to my better understanding of narrative games in general, specifically Fate and Burning Wheel, and to my increased familiarity with the author's "voice."

The author is Robin D. Laws, and my increased familiarity with him is due to a combination of following him on Twitter and reading Hamlet's Hit Points. There were only a few points in HeroQuest where being familiar with his voice was really helpful, but it did make it easier to get through those concepts. I wish I could give some specific examples of this, but I didn't think to take notes at the time, and can't find the specific points now.

As for Hamlet's Hit Points, you can definitely see some of the concepts from that book in the chapter on Playing Stories. He uses some different terminology, but the concepts are the same.

Mechanically, characters in HeroQuest consist solely of abilities that are defined by the player and GM. There are no fixed attributes or skill lists in the game. This was one of the concepts I used to have difficulty with, but having played Fate I now recognize them as being similar to aspects from that game. The main differences in HeroQuest are that characters consist solely of these player defined abilities, and they are given numerical ratings.

Each ability is assigned a rating from 1 to 20, but 20 is not the highest level an ability can have. Instead, when you raise an ability to 21 it wraps around and becomes a level 1 ability with one level of Mastery (the game uses a special character to show levels of Mastery, but I can't duplicate that shorthand with the character sets I have available in this blog).

Every roll in the game is an opposed roll. The GM sets a difficulty from 1 to 20 (possibly with levels of Mastery), then the player rolls against his ability while the GM rolls against the difficulty. Equal to or under the number being rolled against is a success, over it is a failure, a natural 1 is a critical success, and a natural 20 is a fumble. The two results are compared against each other which results in a range from complete victory (critical vs. fumble) to complete defeat (fumble vs. critical). Ties are resolved with the lowest roll winning a marginal victory.

Two things can alter this result, levels of Mastery and Hero Points. If one side of a contest has a greater level of Mastery than the other, then that side can shift his result a number of times equal to the difference in his levels of mastery. So if that side rolled a failure, but has one more mastery level than the other side, then they can shift the result to a success. Hero Points work the same way, with each point spent shifting the result one level. In both cases, if one side is already at critical success, then they can use additional shifts to lower the result of the opposing side.

Unfortunately, Hero Points are the one system that I really dislike in HeroQuest. The reason I dislike them is that they use one of my most hated game mechanics: combining experience points with some other form of expendable resource. I despise this mechanic, and could write a separate piece as to why (something I thought I'd already done, but as I can't find it in the archives here, I will probably write one shortly). For now I'll simply say that I don't find it to be an interesting choice as to whether or not to use experience for temporary gain within play or to hold on to it to improve the character permanently later.

I dislike this mechanic so much, that it would normally be a deal breaker for me as to whether or not I'd be willing to play a particular game that includes it, but I'm liking the rest of the system enough that I still want to run it anyway.

That's all there is to the basics of the game. The rest of the rules help clarify edge cases and special circumstances. The book finishes with a chapter on applying all of this to a game set in Glorantha, but is aimed towards those already familiar with the setting. It appears to be more of a stopgap measure until they can get further books published (there are a couple out now, but I have not yet read them).

One of the most interesting aspects of the game is character creation. Since a character consists solely of abilities, it is possible to just create a character by listing the abilities you want and then assigning points to them, but that's not the only way you can do it. The most interesting way of doing it is to write a description of your character that fills 100 words or less.

For example, if I were to create a character for a Star Wars game using HeroQuest, I might write the following:

Han Solo is a smuggler who made the Kessel run in twelve parsecs. He is always accompanied by his co-pilot, Chewbacca. He is an excellent pilot of their ship, the Millenium Falcon, which he keeps flying by jury-rigging repairs. He claims to be in it for the money, but he also has a heart of gold. He tends to shoot first when threatened, and is a crack shot with his Blastech-44. He’s also an Imperial Academy graduate, and a competent starship gunner. He owes money to Jabba the Hutt. He tends to dress like a scruffy-looking nerf herder.

Out of this I can get the following abilities:
made the Kessel run in twelve parsecs
Chewbacca (a sidekick)
Millenium Falcon (tech)
in it for the money
heart of gold
shoot first when threatened
crack shot
Blastech-44 (tech)
Imperial Academy graduate
starship gunner
Jabba the Hutt (enemy)
scruffy-looking nerf herder

Some of these abilities are obvious, like pilot or crack shot, but others may require some defining on the part of the player or GM, either before or during play.

Next I assign a value of 17 to one ability, 13 to the rest, and then assign 20 more points wherever I want to.

One of the great things about this system is that it's hard to think of a fictional character that I couldn't recreate using it, which also means that it's hard to think of a fictional genre that can't be run with a little creativity.

The simplicity of the system might make long term campaigns problematical, but certainly for short runs or one shots this should work pretty well. I'm looking forward to giving it a try.