Tuesday 30 March 2010


Pretty much on a whim, I bought this Airfix 1/48 scale Hurricane Mk.I the other day.

I haven't built a plastic model aeroplane for many, many years... about twenty years, in fact. I was a bit interested in WW1 aeroplanes for a while, and I slapped together a few of them in various scales, but that was some considerable time ago. I still have a few either still pristine in their boxes, or half-built and abandoned at the point when my stringbag obsession suddenly evaporated (I seem to have a hobby turnaround time of about five years). My skills are rusty, to say the least.

One of the problems with building display-scale models is where to put the blasted things once they're done. Our house is already overflowing with knick-knacks covering every flat surface. Maybe I'l hang it from the ceiling by a piece of nylon fishing line, the way I used to do in my bedroom when I was a kid... though I suspect Annette might have a word or two to say about that idea.

Ah well, I'll deal with that problem when (and if) I come to it.

Thursday 25 March 2010


In theory, we play a weekly game of Swords & Wizardry. In practice, our gaming group is so small that if a couple of people can't make it, the game goes bye-bye for that week. We've just expanded to four players, which makes a single absence just workable usually, but having two away at once guts the group too badly. And, all being grown-ups with real-life obligations and crap like that, absences aren't that uncommon.

This week is one of those weeks. Dang!

I'd like to find a couple more players so that this real-life-intrusion doesn't affect the progress of the game so badly, but Old-School roleplayers are even thinner on the ground around here* than regular run-of-the-mill roleplayers. We're an older group (our youngest is getting towards 40), so we're not that attractive a prospect for the youngsters who are, in any case, generally more interested in the WoW-like razmatazz of 4e and the like.

Ah well, I guess I can always Turn To Drink.

* "Around here" is Christchurch, New Zealand.

Wednesday 24 March 2010

Conflicted about my toys

I love miniature figurines. I have ever since I was a child; one of the great Christmas presents, and one that I've always remembered, was some sets of Airfix 1/32 scale polyethylene toy soldiers.

I have to make a real effort to restrain myself from buying new figures all the time, even though I already own thousands of them (most of the metal ones are still, and will probably always remain, unpainted). I must have spent close to a thousand bucks on those WotC pre-painted plastic figures, even though I kind of hated the fact that I couldn't tell what I was getting in the box (I don't buy them any more, because the overall quality of both sculpting and painting has really gone down the toilet).

The drawers shown here are all full of figures, and they are but a fraction of my collection.

I'm really tempted by those DwarvenForge (?) modular dungeon pieces as well, but I know in my heart that I'd use those once in a blue moon too. So far I've resisted.

For all that I love them so much, I hardly ever use them in roleplaying.

Partly it boils down to laziness; quite often I just can't be bothered hunting through my vast, obsessive collection to find the monster I want. Also, I prefer not to have to break the flow of the game just as combat is beginning just to make sure that we're playing with exactly the right figures. If I remember to prepare beforehand, and separate out the monsters I'm intending to throw at the party, then maybe... but I'm seldom that well organised.

Partly, and in my mind more importantly, it's because the figures themselves are seldom perfect representations of what I have in my mind's eye, and the chances are they're not quite right for any of the players either.

One of the things I love about tabletop roleplaying games is that although we're all working in a common milieu, with more or less precise descriptions of the environment and adversaries from the GM, everyone at the table will be seeing something different in their own imaginations. Everyone pictures their own characters in their own unique way.

Miniatures, and things like the 3d dungeon mapping modules, erode that personalized vision. There's still some imagination at work, but it's going to be heavily influenced, for good or for bad, by the physical reality of the gaming environment. Illustrations and models are useful when description proves to be inadequate, but they're not as personally satisfying as the creations of one's own brain.

There are undeniable advantages to using some kind of tabletop tactical display though. It makes it clear to everyone just what the situation is from moment to moment, so the chances for misunderstanding are lessened — and that's not something to be sniffed at, when one's character's life is on the line.

When we do use figurines, quite often I'll go for something like this in preference to actual monster miniatures.

Actually, the Mr Man toy is probably a bad choice — who could possibly see that and be terrified? Even though I may be describing a foetid, tentacled, bat-winged maggot-demon from the Abyss, dripping with foul ichors and snarling at the characters with a huge mouth full of shark-like fangs, the players are going to see a happy smiling Mr Man and go "Awwwww...."

Bad choice, but good demonstration. That's what I mean by the physical environment contaminating the imaginary one.

I don't mean, by all this, to say that I never use monster figures. What I do mean to say is... I'm conflicted about the wisdom of doing so.

We do tend to use adventurer figures for characters, and they do end up merging in our minds' eyes with the characters they're supposed to be representing. A problem with that is that once that happens, the figurine becomes useless for any other purpose. This figure has been used to represent Annette's character, Zosia the elvish fighter-mage, for many years now. If I tried to use it to represent an NPC... well, it just wouldn't work. Through osmosis, that figure has become Zosia. It could be nobody else.

Ah well, if I can't use that figure, I suppose I'll just have to go and buy another one. Or ten. Or twenty.... just in case.

It's not my fault.

Monday 22 March 2010


I present here a formal portrait of a respected elder of his goblin tribe, a pillar of the goblin community. He's almost certainly a member of the Chamber of Commerce, and possibly even a Rotarian. However, his 200 children probably don't even come to visit any more. (Click on the image for a larger version)

In my fantasy roleplaying campaigns, I've always preferred to lump together goblins, kobolds, knockers, redcaps, gnomes, sprites, ogres, griggans and what-not into a delicious dish of Faery Surprise, rather than treating them as distinct species.

That means that, gross physical differences aside, a sprite and an ogre are fundamentally the same, inasmuch as they're both faeries... though if you're going to be seduced by a faery and end up having a half-faery baby, it's probably going to be more pleasant to recall if you're seduced by the sprite rather than the ogre.

In my campaigns, faeries come in an infinite range of sizes and shapes. Some are inherently magical, others have minimal magical ability. Faery "races" are merely a human attempt at categorization of those forms that tend to repeat; for example, if a human were to see a beautiful little gossamer-winged woman flitting about above a meadow, that human would probably think "Aha! A sylph!", whereas a huge, tusked, muscle-bound humanoid might be identified as an ogre because of the way it keeps whacking you with its club and trying to boil you for dinner in a great big cauldron.

To faeries, both of these forms are just faeries. To a faery, saying "sylph" or "ogre" is like us referring to somebody by their ethnic background — there may be certain stereotypical assumptions implicit in the description, but they're not necessarily accurate, any more than a brain-damaged KKK enthusiast's prejudices are likely to be accurate. A sprite might sneer at an ogre because it's big, clumsy, smelly, and can't do magic for toffee. The ogre might sneer right back at the sprite's tiny, fragile form and effete fashion sense... but it might be crying inside, wounded to the heart by the sprite's cruel jibes. Then it might go off and take it out on something that isn't likely to turn it into a wart-hog, such as a human farmer. Maybe ogres are just acting out. maybe all that smashing and boiling is just a cry for help.

Just because they're all faeries together, that doesn't mean that there aren't hierarchies involved. Most faeries are snooty little bastards, when it comes right down to it. And for the most part, they don't care about us humans one whit.

Sunday 21 March 2010

Persistence of Memory

A situation arose in our game the other night that interested me, because it demonstrated very clearly the extent to which we play by memory, rather than by the rules as written.

A couple of characters were immobilized by a nasty kobold spear-trap (people always underestimate kobolds), had oil poured all over them and were set alight. Things were looking bad indeed, when Zosia, the tiny (but perfectly formed) elvish fighter-mage, announced that she was going to extinguish her immolated chums by casting Pyrotechnics on them.

I had a vague memory that the spell did indeed extinguish any fire it was cast on, but I thought I'd better refresh my memory and check the actual spell description:

Pyrotechnics, courtesy of Swords & Wizardry:
The caster creates either fireworks or blinding smoke from a normal fire source such as a torch or campfire. The Referee will decide exactly how much smoke is produced, what effect it has, and what happens to it as it’s produced, but the amount of smoke will definitely be more than 20 cubic feet.

    And this is what our dim memories were recalling:

    Pyrotechnics, courtesy of AD&D1e (PHB p.58):
    A pyrotechnics spell can have either of two effects. It produces a flashing and fiery burst of glowing, colored aerial fireworks which lasts 1 segment per experience level of the druid casting the spell and temporarily blinds those creatures in the area of effect or under it or within 12" of the area (and in any event in unobstructed line of sight); or it causes a thick writhing stream of smoke to arise from the fire source of the spell and form a choking cloud which lasts for 1 round per experience level of the druid casting it, covering a roughly globular area from the ground or floor up (or conforming to, the shape of a confined area), which totally obscures vision beyond 2'. The spell requires a fire of some sort in range. The area of pyrotechnics effect is 10 times the volume of the fire source with respect to fireworks, 100 times with respect to smoke. In either case, the fire source is immediately extinguished by the employment of the spell.

      The S&W description is non-specific to the point of being vague; it certainly doesn't mention anything about the fire being extinguished. But that's what everyone at the table expected the spell to do, so that's how we played it, and will play it for ever more.

      Out of curiosity, I thought I'd see what some of the other editions of the game had to say...


      The pyrotechnics spell may be used to produce two entirely different effects: a bright display of fiery light or a massive pall of smoke. Both possible uses of the spell require an existing fire source (which may be anywhere in the spell’s range), and the spell’s area of effect depends on the size of the originating fire.
      If the spell is used to produce fireworks, the flashing display will temporarily blind (for 1d4+1 rounds) all creatures in the area of effect and 120 ft beyond—provided that the display is not obstructed from view, of course. The fireworks fill an area ten times the volume of the original fire source and persist for 1 segment/ caster level.
      If the spell is used to produce smoke, a billowing cloud will emanate from the fire source, obscuring vision beyond 20 ft in an area 100 times the volume of the fire source. Whatever fire is used as the spell’s source is extinguished immediately as the spell is cast.

      D&D d20 3.5 (SRD):

      Pyrotechnics turns a fire into either a burst of blinding fireworks or a thick cloud of choking smoke, depending on the version you choose.
      Fireworks: The fireworks are a flashing, fiery, momentary burst of glowing, colored aerial lights. This effect causes creatures within 120 feet of the fire source to become blinded for 1d4+1 rounds (Will negates). These creatures must have line of sight to the fire to be affected. Spell resistance can prevent blindness.
      Smoke Cloud: A writhing stream of smoke billows out from the source, forming a choking cloud. The cloud spreads 20 feet in all directions and lasts for 1 round per caster level. All sight, even darkvision, is ineffective in or through the cloud. All within the cloud take –4 penalties to Strength and Dexterity (Fortitude negates). These effects last for 1d4+1 rounds after the cloud dissipates or after the creature leaves the area of the cloud. Spell resistance does not apply.
      Material Component: The spell uses one fire source, which is immediately extinguished. A fire so large that it exceeds a 20-foot cube is only partly extinguished. Magical fires are not extinguished, although a fire-based creature used as a source takes 1 point of damage per caster level.


      Pyrotechnics turns a fire into a burst of blinding fireworks or a thick cloud of choking smoke, depending on your choice. The spell uses one fire source, which is immediately extinguished. A fire so large that it exceeds a 20-foot cube is only partly extinguished. Magical fires are not extinguished, although a fire-based creature used as a source takes 1 point of damage per caster level.
      Fireworks: The fireworks are a flashing, fiery, momentary burst of glowing, colored aerial lights. This effect causes creatures within 120 feet of the fire source to become blinded for 1d4+1 rounds (Will negates). These creatures must have line of sight to the fire to be affected. Spell resistance can prevent blindness.
      Smoke Cloud: A stream of smoke billows out from the fire, forming a choking cloud that spreads 20 feet in all directions and lasts for 1 round per caster level. All sight, even darkvision, is ineffective in or through the cloud. All within the cloud take –4 penalties to Strength and Dexterity (Fortitude negates). These effects last for 1d4+1 rounds after the cloud dissipates or after the creature leaves the area of the cloud. Spell resistance does not apply.
      The later editions, unsurprisingly, are a lot more specific in what can and can't be done with Pyrotechnics, but the differences are reasonably subtle — just enough to sneakily trip you up when you're expecting one thing and suddenly have revealed to you by the resident rules lawyer that you're doing it totally wrong, dude.

      I couldn't find the spell in D&D4e at all, but that doesn't startle me much because it's not a spell that's all that useful in combat; most of those appear to have been done away with as being totally lame and pointless and uncool, just like this blog entry.

      Saturday 20 March 2010

      The Horror of Tartan

      Tartan is one of those things that can make figure painters swoon with terror, but it's actually a lot easier to paint than you might imagine.

      The following steps will give you a very acceptable tartan... bearing in mind that I really don't know much about actual historical tartans. If you want a specific tartan, you may have to adjust the process, but for most purposes just changing the colours will work fine. The specific colours I'm using here will give you a result like a generic hunting tartan.

      First, paint the base colour — in this case, a medium green.
      Next, paint a grid of stripes in a darker shade of the base colour. Don't make them too thin, and don't space them too close together.

      The next step is to paint in the intersections of the stripes in a darker shade still. You can stop at this stage if you just want a suggestion of tartan, but the next couple of steps really bring it to life.
      The next step requires a good, pointed brush and a reasonably steady hand. Paint fine lines through the middle of the grid in the same colour as you used for the intersections.
      The last step is to take a lighter, matching colour (in this case I've used a light yellowish green — or greenish yellow) and paint in another fine grid, overlaying the original grid.

      And that's it. you've got your tartan.

      Don't mistake me, this is not a technique that will compensate for a clumsy painter, but as long as you're even moderately light and steady of hand, this series of steps will give you a good result every time.

      Also works for gingham.

      Friday 19 March 2010


      For some reason I don't seem to be able to comment on anybody's Blogger blog, not even my own, and I seem to get auto-logged-out when I go to my (or anybody else's) blog from the Dashboard. I have no idea why.

      Therefore, if you ask me a question in the comments and I don't reply, it's not because I'm ignoring you, it's because I can't reply.

      By the way, Jeff: CCW = Cure Critical Wounds spell

      Ye Olde Crytical Hyttes

      Back in the day, we loved our AD&D. We loved it so much that we went to vast lengths to improve it, and since we were mostly nerdy wargamer types with an overinflated sense of the importance of (a) charts, and (b) gore, one of the things we put a lot of effort into was making combat bloodier and more dangerous.

      This chart was the end result of our desire to make our Hits more Critical, and we used it for many years.

      It is not what, these days, I'd consider an elegant solution to the problem — if indeed there is any problem. It required at least two additional d% rolls after the attack roll, plus a damage roll, and the results were adjusted by the target's level and armour class as well as the type of weapon being used. It's a cross-referencer's wet dream, but it brings combat to a screeching halt whenever a potential critical occurs.

      I used them right up until we swapped the campaign over to the Hero System. When D&D3e came along and I swapped the campaign back to D&D after some years of Heroing, I decided I didn't want to use this system any more, for two reasons:
      1. It's as clunky as hell, and...
      2. I was fed up with having a party full of characters ending up as Gimpy Ted the one-eyed, one-armed, one-legged Thief.
      The problem with critical hit systems is that they work against the party much more than for them. True, it does mean that every once in a while a lucky blow will take out a mighty dragon with one hit (which, I might add, really pissed me off and led me to do some rather petty and unworthy DMing, but that's another story), but the characters get to take it as well, and the results can be devastating. If you chop the leg off an unfortunate ogre and it hops away to bleed to death in its cave, well, chances are you'll have forgotten that ogre tomorrow; monsters are ephemeral things. If the ogre chops your leg off, you get to enjoy the ongoing effects of that because characters are not (usually) ephemeral.

      Because people do seem to like to get something a bit extra from a really good die roll, we did eventually go back to using a Critical Hit (and Fumble) system. However, it's a straight damage multiplication system — I wouldn't use a specific-damage system again.

      For what it's worth the system we use now goes like this (note that we use ascending AC):

      1. If you roll a natural 20, you damage the target even if you wouldn't normally be able to hit it (unless it's invulnerable to your weapon for any reason). If you need less than a 20 to hit, you do maximum damage
      2. You then roll another d20 and add that to the first; if the result is 20 more than the target's Armour Class, you get to do additional weapon damage on top of the max. damage for the first 20.
      3. If you roll another 20, add it and if the result is 40 more than the target AC, you get to do more weapon damage
      4. And so on. if you keep rolling 20s you keep getting potentially more and more damage.
      If a stabbing weapon like a javelin or arrow gets a critical, it lodges in the wound and does half extra damage every time the victim moves violently, and normal damage again when it is extracted.

      What I like about this system is that there's nothing to look up. All you have to do is keep adding your d20 scores and checking how much bigger the result is than the AC you're aiming at. No legs chopped off, no inevitable death from having your liver split. No having the indignity of watching the rest of the party dividing up your stuff because you're going to be dead in twenty minutes and they don't have a Cure Critical Wounds to keep you alive.

      How to find the area of a hex

      How to find the area of a hex


      Find the width from face to face, and multiply that by 0.86, then multiply the two together to get your area.

      For example, if your hex is nominally 25 miles wide from face to face, its area will be 25 * (25 * 0.86 = 21.5) = 537.5 square miles.

      The illustration to the right displays how this is so; you will note that triangles A and a, and B and b are the same size. Move AB to ab and we get a rectangle of dimensions 1 x 0.86 — simple as that.

      NOTE: thanks to jdjarvis for pointing out the glaringly obvious oversight in my original calculation :)

      Thursday 18 March 2010

      The problem of the Thief

      I include a Thief class in my Swords & Wizardy campaign (though nobody has, as yet, chosen to be one) but I've never really found a decent mechanical means of reflecting their particular skill-set. At present, thiefly abilities are described rather vaguely and are heavily reliant on DM fiat.

      In AD&D they were given level-based percentile chances for success at various things, like picking pockets or locks, or finding or disarming traps, or moving silently or hiding in shadows, or climbing things... I think that's about it, though I never played a Thief, so I never had the appropriate rules ground into my lizard-brain the way the rules for Fighters were. Anyway, that worked OK except that, by design or not, the fact that the Thief had these specific, delineated abilities tended to mean that it was assumed that other character classes specifically didn't have them. A wizard could never expect to successfully pick a pocket, because he wasn't a Thief.

      That's significant, because in OD&D the implicit assumption was/is that any character can try anything, and success or failure depends enormously on circumstance (and how bastardly the DM is feeling).

      One of the assumptions in OD&D is that, if in doubt, you roll a d6 to succeed in some task or other. Generally speaking, if you roll a 1 or 2, you succeed — whether it's jumping a crevasse, or throwing a line to a drowning comrade, or filching a purse from a passing fat merchant, or whatever... a character is assumed to have 1 chance in 3 of succeeding at any task that doesn't have an explicit success mechanism.

      My thought about how to integrate the Thief's enhanced abilities without departing from the standard success mechanism (in other words, to make them better at things, not uniquely capable of attempting them) is simply to give them more chances to succeed.

      Where another character rolls a d6 to spot a trap (succeeding on a 1), a first-level Thief would get to roll 2d6 and succeed if either of them showed a 1. Thieves would get additional dice for their thiefly abilities as they rise in level; I'm thinking at every third level (i.e. 3rd, 6th, 9th, 12th etc.), so a 7th-level Thief would be rolling 4d6 to detect a trap, and succeeds if any of them roll a 1. The higher the level of the Thief, the greater the chance of success, but there's still always a chance of failure — even a 30th-level Thief, rolling a whole handful of dice, might conceivably not roll any ones at all.

      A corollary of this is that especially fiendish traps, difficult climbs, cunningly-hidden secret doors etc. could require more than one success to be achieved.

      This mechanism would also be used for things like an Elf's enhanced chance to find secret doors — other characters have one chance in three of succeeding (rolling 1 or 2 on 1d6), while an elf has 2 chances in 3. Using this system, everybody succeeds on a 1 or 2, but the elf gets an additional die to roll.

      I realise that this mechanism is not startlingly new or original; dice pools (I think that's what this is) have been used in lots of other games. I just think it would be a good fit for S&W/OD&D.

      Wednesday 17 March 2010

      Char B1(bis) - WIP

      My next modeling project is this 15mm (1/100th scale) WWII French tank, a Char B1(bis) by Battlefront.

      This is actually their Beutepanzer (captured tank) model as it would have appeared in German service, and it's sold as a Flammpanzer (flame-throwing tank) with a choice of the flamethrower nozzle and fuel tank, or the 75mm howitzer in the hull-front. There's apparently some extra armour in front that the French original didn't have.

      I've modeled it with the howitzer in place, because I want to paint it as if in French service. I don't care too much about the armour detail; even with it, it still looks just like a Char B1(bis). To tell the truth, I can't see any difference at all — maybe the extra armour is part of the flamethrower nozzle piece? Beats me.

      The French used quite a range of paint schemes on their WWII armour, but the one I like the best is a blobby, black-outlined three-colour scheme like this one, and that's what I'm going to paint on this guy.

      Mapping the Wilderness

      I'm a map-junkie. I just love making maps, and some of the maps I've drawn for my games have been in use for nearly thirty years — like these ones, which I've been digitally enhancing in the last few years but are still essentially the same pen-and-ink maps I drew all those many years ago.

      For all that, I've never really got into drawing small-scale wilderness maps until very recently.

      I overlaid a hex-grid on my old world-maps, and thought I'd have a go at detailing the area the party are wombling about in right now — and found that there are lots of things that need names, and that I suck at making up names. This map (click on the image for a bigger, more detailed version) covers an area 25 miles from side to side, and the internal hexes are therefore five miles across. I could use the same template to zoom in on one of the 5-mile hexes, in which case the small hexes would be one mile each, and so forth. But in spite of my map-junkieness, the probability of that happening is slim.

      The thing is, I don't actually make up much stuff before game-time; I just kind of fill it in as I go along. So while a map like this one is reasonably useful, letting me know how long it's going to take the party to get back to Rath Donnan from the middle of the Weeping Wood for example, a smaller scale map becomes less and less useful because the area has already been dealt with on the fly, and the chances are that the party will never come back to the same spot again so keeping a very detailed area map is mostly pointless. If they do go back, I have my (mostly incomprehensible) scribbled notes to rely on.

      If they decided to set up house out in the wilderness (not very likely with this particular group of players), then and only then would I consider putting in the effort to map a 5-mile hex in any detail.

      Maps like this one are really only for my own use, and in truth I could make do with something a lot sketchier (and it would be a lot less work too). But I like making and looking at fancy-looking maps, so that's what I make for myself. The players get much less gorgeous maps to work with, if they get a map at all.

      Ideally, I prefer my players to make their overland maps in the same way they deal with dungeon maps. That is, they find somebody who knows (or purports to know) the area they're interested in, get him to describe it, and draw the map themselves from his description. Then, if they're interested, they can fill in lacunae from their own experience as they're travelling through the area. From time to time I do provide them with a pre-made map, but I never make any guarantees as to its accuracy or reliability.

      I remember once seeing a medieval map of the world which bore almost no relation to actual geographic reality; it showed Jerusalem at the centre of a more or less circular disc with squiggly edges, with England shown as a slightly detached bit of the edge of the world. "Roads" between Jerusalem and other cities were just straight ruled lines. I think they might have had travel time marked in next to some of them.

      I think that keeping the real maps out of the players' grubby mitts adds to the mystery and enjoyment of the game. There are few DMs who would consider giving their players a complete map of any dungeon they're about to go frolicking in, so why should overland maps be any different?

      Saturday 13 March 2010

      Encumbrance.... I hate it, yet I love it

      Encumbrance is one of those things that nearly everybody prefers to ignore. Frankly, it's a pain in the arse keeping track of how many sewing needles you have, and how much every little thing weighs, and where you're storing it, and how slowly you're staggering along under the load. But I love it. Just love it.

      Is it because I am an anal, borderline autistic, obsessive accountant-type? Why no. In fact I am one of the laziest, most disorganised people I know.

      It's because, to me, most of the fun of dungeon-bashing rests in overcoming the challenges of traps, terrain, and adversaries with limited resources. It's kind of like playing The Incredible Machine in the mind, with hideous tentacled monstrosities from the Abyss to complicate matters. I've never really been one for roleplaying poltical intrigue. I don't really care about detailed interaction with NPCs, although that can sometimes be fun. I just like solving puzzles and beating things up and nicking their stuff, which I can then use to solve puzzles and beat things up and nick their stuff.

      In my Swords & Wizardy campaign, I use a pretty simple encumbrance system:
      Total Weight Carried
      (in lbs)
      Encumbrance LevelMovement RateDEX Save Adjustment
      Up to STR x 5LightNo change0
      Up to STR x 10Moderate75%-2
      Up to STR x 15Heavy50%-3
      Up to STR x 20Very Heavy25%-4

      So far, so good. It's pretty easy to tot up how much all your bits and pieces weigh, and in general that's enough for game-playing purposes.

      But it's not enough for me; I want to know not only how much characters are carrying, but how they're carrying it. You say you're moving cautiously, ready for combat with sword drawn and shield on arm... well that's fine, but how are you also carrying your lantern? And what about the bundle of five ten-foot poles you have written there in your equipment list? And what about this folding canvas bath with shower attachment.... what the fuck?

      Equipment weight is dealt with in just about every equipment list in every set of rules I've ever read, but equipment volume is another matter. D&D tried to give everything an equivalence to coinage, which I've always found rather unsatisfactory; the exceptions seem to outnumber the situations in which that works well. Weight is a simple number, easy to comprehend, but actual encumbrance value is trickier, especially when you may not actually have a very clear idea of what your equipment actually looks and feels like. You may have been lucky enough to steal find a +3 Godentag which has been your signature weapon ever since, but what is that actually? How do you carry it? What sort of container do you keep lamp-oil in, and how big are they and where are they carried?

      This is where the equipping screens for computer games really excel. You get a little picture of your character, and little pictures of your various bits of equipment, and you can drag and drop them on to your belt or into a pack or pouch or whatever, and you can see at a glance when things are getting ludicrous. A graphical solution like this has obvious advantages, but it doesn't translate easily to a pencil-&-paper tabletop RPG.

      I wonder if some sort of stylized front-and-back figure-dummy printed on the character sheet might be a workable system — various bits and pieces could be drawn in on top of the mannequin where the player thinks they'll go, to represent his or her standard marching configuration.

      Items placed in backpacks or belt-pouches would be listed in discrete areas on the equipment sheet. The trick here would be visualizing just how much stuff can fit in the given container — volume is going to be more relevant than mass here (until you try to pick the pack up, that is).

      In all of this, the recurring issue is — what does stuff look like, and how big is it?

      Clearly there is a need for a fully-illustrated equipment list, drawn to a constant scale, and providing details of weight, fragility, special cartage requirements (does a flask have to be carried neck-up to avoid leakage, for example). Maybe something like those dress-up paper dolls? Maybe not.

      Anyway, I'd get right on to producing that, except for being the laziest and most disorganised person I know.

      Wednesday 10 March 2010

      That giant again

      Well OK then.

      Here's the finished job, all painted more or less up to my current standard, and ready to smash some adventurers' skulls. Or, as is more likely, be himself brutally murdered by a ravening pack of savage, amoral mercenaries and all his stuff nicked.

      Except.... DANG! Until I looked at the pictures, I completely failed to realize that I'd forgotten to paint his wrist-bangles. Ah well, that's no biggie.

      Click on the picture to see a bigger, more detailed picture.

      1977 Ral Partha giant - progress

      I've made a start on this guy. I've blocked in the major muscle groups with a wash and dry-brush, and painted in his face and hair... not that there's a lot of face showing through that amazing beard.

      His loin-cloth I've blocked in a dark green; I think I'm going to pattern it somehow, though I haven't yet decided just how. Tartan might be a good choice; he seems to me to have a vaguely Caledonian vibe, what with that Celtic shield strapped to his belly and all.

      I can't say I'm looking forward to painting all his skin. I've never been all that good at flesh-paint.

      Sunday 7 March 2010

      Another old miniature for restoration

      Here's another very old figure I found while rummaging around in my Abandoned Figures Repository. I painted him when I first got him in 1981, but at some stage I must have decided to repaint him and forgotten about him after the undercoat went on. I don't even remember when that might have been, so it must have been quite a few years ago.

      I'm not completely sure which company made this guy, but I think it was Ral Partha. There is some engraving under the base, but it's not very clear — the only easily decipherable text is "1977", which I guess is its design date.

      [Edit: sure enough, it's listed as Ral Partha ES Series RP01-059 - Fire Giant. Not really big enough to be a D&D fire giant, but there you go.]

      He's a giant, and stands about 45mm tall from toes to crown (not including his honking great godentag). As usual, I've glued him to a steel washer, both to make him more stable, and so that I can store him on a magnetic mat. It looks as though I just slapped the white undercoat on straight over the old paint, so that will probably have to come off and a new undercoat put on the bare metal.

      This guy is unlike almost any other giant figure I've seen, being rather skinny and stringy rather than the Hulk-like brutes that are usually presented as giants. That and his crazed hippy-like hair and beard and his great beaky nose make him an attractive figure to me.... maybe attractive isn't quite the right word, but I like him.

      I tend to find large areas of bare flesh rather daunting when it comes to painting, but we'll see how he goes.

      Friday 5 March 2010

      Asgard wizard repaint - Mission Complete

      Well, here's that old Asgard figure from this entry, all repainted and based and ready to start clambering about the tabletop. I think he turned out OK, really.

      Stripping off the old paint didn't take nearly as long as I had thought, because after it had been in the Simple Green for an hour or so I remembered that I have a cheap ultrasonic cleaner. I put it in that, still in the Simple Green, and hit it with the ultrasonics for eight minutes or so, and the paint lifted very nicely. 24 hours soaking in just a few minutes — sweet. I don't know if that first hour of soaking is necessary to pre-soften the paint surface before putting it in the ultrasonic bath; next time I'll try it straight in, and see how it goes.

      I kept the grey scheme from the original paint job, and just jazzed it up a bit with some shading and highlighting. The base is a 20mm steel washer; I tend to base all my figures on them these days, as it means I can store them on magnetic mats and they don't knock each other around.

      All in all, I'd call this guy a success.

      Light in the Darkness

      Light in the dungeon is something I've seldom seen properly handled in roleplaying games. I've seen plenty of rules for it, some of them quite... anal, shall we say, but it's not often played well. We're so used to having bright, powerful light available on command that it's difficult for modern people to understand what it's like not to.

      Imagine, if you will, exploring a creepy tumble-down old mansion with a flashlight. I expect you've seen this very situation on TV and in the movies dozens of times. It's an unnerving experience, stumbling around in the semi-dark with just that fragile beam of light to guide you; shadows move alarmingly, especially if there are several people waving torches around, and you're probably going to be kicking unseen obstacles on the floor. If you startle a cat or racoon or something with your torch, you will probably shit yourself and squeal like a little baby when it explodes into flight.

      Now, that crappy flashlight is about a bazillion times better than any of the standard dungeon light sources; its light is focused, steady and strong. It's likely that it's a light rated in the tens, if not hundreds of candlepower.

      Unless you're using some kind of magic flashlight-substitute, when you're stumbling around in the depths of the Underdark, what you have to guide you is basically a candle. If you're using a lantern of some sort, it's pretty much a candle in a box; possibly (depending on the type of wick) two or three candlepower. If you're using a torch, your flame is bigger, maybe up to four or five candlepower, but more erratic and vulnerable, and torches are bulky and they don't last all that long. A reflector bullseye lantern is the closest you'll get to a modern torch, and even a two- or three-wick version of that (which will suck through your lamp-oil like you wouldn't believe) puts out a surprisingly crappy beam of light.

      Basically, ancient lighting sucks.

      Your eyes do adapt somewhat to darkness of course, but one incautious glance into a torch flame — easily done, especially if there are several of you, all carrying torches or lamps — and you're boned; you'll have to start acclimatizing all over again, and it takes a surprising length of time for a human being's eyes to become fully dark-adapted. And if there's no light at all, because the goddam doofus cleric dropped all the torches down an abyss when he almost failed to jump over it, then all your iris-widening isn't going to let you see a goddam thing when you're underground.

      Now, all the rules in the world aren't really that much help, except as a mechanical guide. What will make the situation come to life is if the DM (and preferably the players as well) knows what it's really like to be working with such limited light resources. Then the DM can really start putting the creeps on the party as they fumble their way along, waiting to be ambushed at any second by some tentacled monstrosity from the pits of Hell.

      I really recommend that, if you get the chance, you go exploring an abandoned building on a moonless night, or down in some tunnels if you're lucky enough to have some handy, with nothing but some candle-lamps — or maybe a kerosene lamp or two, if you want to get a sense of what the absolute best lanterns available to the medieval world were like. (Note that medieval travelling lamps usually used horn or tortoise-shell, not glass, as their windows — it was much, much cheaper, and a lot less fragile, so if you want to replicate a standard medieval lamp with your modern kerosene or candle lamp, cover the glass with some kind of translucent material).

      If you get caught trespassing, just tell them I sent you. It'll be sweet.

      Old, old mini - repaint WIP

      Rummaging around last night amongst the many, many miniatures I all too seldom actually use in play, I found this old guy.

      He's DA35 (or 33?) - Human magic-user from Asgard's Dungeon Adventurers range, which I recall seeing advertised from the mid '70s in Military Modelling magazine, and by today's standards the sculpting is.... shall we say, quaint. Even in those days, Asgard figures were generally the poor cousins of Ral Partha when it came to crispness of sculpting and casting, but I have a fondness for the DA range because they actually modeled the figures with equipment like packs, rope, torches, lanterns and what-not.

      The other thing I like about them is that they tended to be modeled in less cinematic poses than has become popular these days. They're generally fairly upright, maybe a little static, but they work excellently as playing tokens because they don't take up more room on the game board than they need, and they reflect their character archetype well enough in most cases as to be instantly identifiable. This guy is a prime example — what could he possibly be but a wizard? He's got a pointy hat, for cripes sake!

      Anyway. I don't recall precisely how this guy came to me. He belonged to a friend, though I don't remember which one, who brought him along to one of our games and left him behind, and he ended up in my collection.

      As I write this, he's sitting in a bath of Simple Green having his paint stripped off, and I'll be repainting him in a day or two. I'm quite looking forward to it.

      Thursday 4 March 2010

      Tonight's game

      We have one player whose character is out of it for the moment, having gone all limp and floppy after coming back from the dead, just like the Dread Pirate Wesley. I thought she could take over a couple of NPCs for the evening, so that she could be doing something constructive....

      Within ten minutes of starting the game, both of them had critically failed their saves against some fire-breathing devil-frog-mastiff-monsters, taken about five times their total hit-points, and been vapourized except for the traditional comedy smoking shoes.

      So, that didn't work quite as well as it might have.

      The rest of the party spent the evening trying to weasel their way around a rather urbane wizardy-type gentleman, of whom they suspected terrible things but were not quite sure, and who (if he is indeed who they think he is) is protected by a powerful charm making those who abuse his hospitality quite defenseless against him. The flip side of the charm is a geas on him, preventing him from harming anyone he has accepted as a guest... so, stalemate.

      It was interesting to watch when a party discovers they can't fall back on the tried and true frontal-attack-kill-them-all-and-ask-questions-later strategy.

      Two of the players are away next week, so no game for a fortnight.

      Tuesday 2 March 2010

      Making life hard for myself

      Right now, when I have a minute spare and enough enthusiasm to sit down and squint through a magnifying visor at tiny metal men, I'm in the process of preparing a bunch of 15mm early medieval spearmen for painting and basing.

      These little guys are (I think) from the now-defunct Tabletop Miniatures. I've had them sitting around for so long that I don't remember exactly what they're supposed to be, but when it comes to 11th-12th century Europe, one lot of heavy spearmen look much like another

      That's the beauty of medieval European armies when it comes to wargaming; figures for one army will fit seamlessly into just about any other without looking out of place. An English peasant or soldier looked pretty much like a Spanish or French or German peasant or soldier. There are differences in detail of course, and some troops are visibly unique, but you can get away with a lot in scales as small as 15mm.

      Anyway, I undercoated these guys many years ago, and dry-brushed their armour, and then put them away and forgot about them until yesterday. I found them languishing in a drawer and decided to finish them off.

      The figures were originally cast with hefty great telephone-pole-like long-spears, and the metal being quite soft, they had ended up looking like those long foam noodles you give to kids to beat each other with without risking any actual injury — you can see some that I've cut off in the photo. If there's one thing I hate on a wargames figure, it's a bendy, noodly spear. So, I decided to get rid of the cast spears and replace them with nice new straight one made from wire. Or, in this case, dressmakers pins.

      This is where life got difficult. Not very difficult you understand, just a bit tricky. Removing the upper part of the spear is straightforward enough, but the lower portion is cast into the figure's hauberk, and so has to be carved away. Then the hand has to be drilled out to receive the new wire spear. That's not too bad. The fiddly bit is actually making the spear.

      I've seen spears made from wire that have just been cut and a blob of silver painted on the end to represent the spearhead, and from any distance at all they look fine, but my obsessive-compulsion forces me to go further. I hammer the pointed end of the pin flat, and then reshape it into a more-or-less spearhead-shaped wedge with a grindstone, then cut off the head of the pin and superglue it in place in the figure's hand.

      All this takes, what, about 12 or 15 minutes per figure. Not much really, but it mounts up; this bunch are 20 figures, so that's four to six hours prep work before I even get on to painting the little bastards. So far I've got one guy finished and painted, another seven with nice new spears, and another twelve to go. And then there's the next unit of spearmen. And the next.

      Sometimes I try to convince myself that maybe a bendy spear isn't that bad... but I can't. I just cant stand seeing the poor little metal buggers out there on the battlefield armed with nothing but a foam noodle.

      Monday 1 March 2010

      Regeneration/Resurrection Spells (S&W/OD&D)

      I like to have potent magical healing available in my campaign, so that players need not have to discard a beloved character just because of some unfortunate accident with a giant razor-sharp scything blade-trap of DOOOOOOOOM. However, I don't much like the idea of healing magic being so convenient that reattaching a limb is as easy as applying a band-aid. To that end, here's my idea for Regeneration and Resurrection spells:

      Spell Level: Cleric L5
      Range: Touch
      Duration: variable (permanent)

      This spell allows the cleric to reattach or regrow missing limbs and/or organs.

      A regenerating creature must be obtained and restrained, and exactly the same damage inflicted on it as on the spell recipient*. Then the cleric creates a mystical link between the two creatures, so that the intended recipient partakes of the other creature's regeneration as it heals.

      The length of time it takes to complete the spell depends on the regenerative ability of the creature being leeched off, and the amount of damage that needs to be healed. The cleric must maintain full concentration throughout the process or else all benefit is lost, and the spell must be started again from scratch.

      * Note that this is likely to make the creature quite angry.

      Spell Level: Cleric L7
      Range: Touch
      Duration: variable (permanent)

      This spell allows the cleric and up to 1d6 others to enter a mystical trance, during which their spirits pass over into the Spirit Realm*. Once there, they can track down the spirit of someone deceased and return with it to its body. The corpse will be regenerated by the spirit's self-image once it is returned to the Material Plane, so that when the spell is complete it will be whole and entire, even if it was originally nothing but bones.

      The nature of, and dangers inherent in travelling the Spirit Realm are at the discretion of the individual GM. I suggest that it not be entirely easy or straightforward; casting (or partaking in the casting) of this spell can be the basis for a whole adventure in itself. I'd also suggest that the GM should adjust the difficulty of finding the correct spirit according to how long they have been dead.

      All sorts of complications come to mind: traditionally the gods of the dead have been reluctant to give up their subjects, and may require placating (or duping) to get away with the dead 'un. The spirit of the dead person may have no memory of their life on earth, and may be unwilling to go back -- in that case, they would actually have to be kidnapped. The possibilities for fun are endless!

      *This could probably be handled in the same way as Astral Travel, but that would be up to the individual GM

      The Dungeon Alphabet

      I've finally received my copy of Michael Curtis' The Dungeon Alphabet from Goodman Games, via Paizo (who had a dollar-off deal going). That dropped the price from $9.99 to $8.99, and then postage to NZ took it right back up and over again.

      I had to wait quite a while for it. The initial print-run wasn't nearly large enough to meet the demand, which is no doubt gratifying to Mike Curtis and Goodman Games, but it was bloody annoying to me -- Paizo had it on back-order for about a month. I have to say though, once they got it back in stock, it got to me within a week or so.

      It's a slender 48-page hardback of pretty standard gaming-book dimensions (I assume that's letter-size), with a colour cover by Erol Otus and liberally illustrated in black & white within by a range of artists (including my new favourite RPG artist, Pete Mullen, who ascends to the heavens and walks with the gods). The design and layout is good; I like good-quality black & white illustration, and we see all too little of it these days. The binding is a pretty standard glued-signature hardback, and the paper stock used is heavy and bright white; it feels good, but I guess only time will tell just how good the binding is.

      There is one thing about the design that I HATE HATE HATE: Goodman Games have printed in a ghastly promotional price-label right there on the front. I thought at first it was a sticker that I could peel off, but no -- that abomination is going to be there for the life of the book. For shame, Goodman Games. What the hell were you thinking? If I were Erol Otus, I'd be really pissed off at having that plastered on top of my work. Hell, I'm pissed off enough as it is, and I just have to look at it.

      The content consists of an alphabetic list of Dungeon Stuff, starting with A for Altars, B for Books, C for Caves and so on. Each entry is illustrated, and begins with a brief examination of the relative dungeon tropes. It then goes on to provide a table for random determination of the thing, whatever it may be. The tables are generally pretty good; some will be less useful than others, but overall they're above average in usefulness for a Dungeon Builder who likes things Old School and Dungeony.

      Michael Curtis has a pleasantly readable style, and a fertile imagination which he shares with us through this book. He can be justifiably proud about this work (even in spite of the Label of Beelzebub, to which I refer above). I'd happily recommend it for anybody with an interest in Old School gaming -- even if you're not a dungeon builder, it's a fun read. I really have to congratulate the illustrators; I'd buy this for the pictures alone (in fact, I mostly did). For ten bucks or thereabouts, it's a bargain.