Tuesday 27 April 2010

Styx Boatman - Grenadier, 1988

This is an old Grenadier figure, bearing a copyright mark for 1988, which would have been pretty nearly when I bought it. It's been sitting around ever since then. I found it while I was rummaging around amongst my old unpainted figures and thought I might as well slop some paint on to it.

I was a bit half-hearted about it from the start, and that lack of enthusiasm really shows. It's rather a half-arsed paint job, and I pretty much hate it, but I'm buggered if I'll do it over.

There was a fairly serious casting line running right down the middle of the figure, which I wasn't entirely successful at removing. You can see it running up the chest and over the face of the corpse in the bow of the boat in the image to the right.

I'm not normally in the habit of buying non-utility figures, though I have splashed out on the occasional one. This particular one could conceivably be useful in some sort of 9 Hells scenario, but I doubt that I'll ever get any actual gaming use out of it, and I expect it will go back into a drawer and probably never see the light of day again. It could maybe be useful on a vignette base or in a diorama, but that's not really my scene these days and hasn't been for many, many years.

Monday 26 April 2010

Being Evil

All my current players are, in theory at least, playing Good characters. Apart from taking a wholly unseemly pleasure in chopping other sentient creatures into gobbets of meat and stealing all their stuff, they generally stay more or less within the lines.

That means that Being Evil is up to me. I'm the GM. I get to play all the Bad Guys.

The trouble is, I'm not very evil. I hate evil people. They really piss me off. Also, it makes me feel distinctly uncomfortable to pretend to be evil.... which is a bit of a problem when most of your job consists of Being Evil.

I'm not talking about muahahahahah!!! hand-wringing dastardly-plan Adam-West-Batman-villain Cartoon Evil here; most of those guys barely make it up to annoyingly naughty. Their so-called Evil tends to be at about the level of a sniggering schoolboy slipping a fart-cushion on to the teacher's chair, and so presents no particular moral or ethical problems for me.

Huge-scale institutional Evil isn't that much of a problem for me to GM either, because it's all so impersonal and regimented. Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin were all undeniably evil (not to mention completely fucking insane), and they instituted some very unpleasant regimes, but I don't generally feel any immediate personal ickiness about GMing that sort of thing. I'm removed from it; it's all just bureacracy with jackboots.

When it comes to your individual evil shit-bag though, the kind of guy who will expoit people face-to-face, who will go out of his or her way to make people's lives more miserable, who will torture and murder both for the fun of it and because it will make other people sickened and afraid.... I have a real problem GMing those arseholes. It may all be make-believe, but I still have to get enough into that mind-set to come up with a believable course of action for my little imaginary psychopaths.

I don't like it. It gives me nausea of the soul to think like that, even peripherally, so I tend to wimp out and go with adversaries who may be savage and brutal killers, who may very well hunt down your children for the purpose of feeding them to their children — but at least they have some sort of rational reason for acting that way.

A side-effect of this attitude is that there's a lot less capital-E Evil around in my campaigns than in a lot of others, a fact that (I think) is tending to piss off the paladin(s) in the party a bit since it makes their Evil-o-Vision™ rather less frequently useful than it might be. Orcs may have a savage, brutal culture, and goblins may be sneaky, treacherous little shits, but they're not Evil. Bad, yes. Evil, no. Maybe some of them are Evil. OK, almost certainly.

Anyway, one of the reasons I like to be able to take a break from GMing every once in a while is because just once in a while, it's nice to be the Good Guy. Being Evil actually kind of sucks.

Thursday 22 April 2010


My gaming has not been coming together at all well lately.

Last week I had a terrible cold that had me in bed coughing, sneezing and complaining incessantly, so GMing wasn't really feasible. This week a PC crucial to the current mission is away visiting the USA, and he'll be away next week too; NPCing him isn't really a realistic option.

That'll be three weeks without a game, and I'm jonesing already. I'm expecting to start seeing the baby crawling on the ceiling[1] any time now.

[1] That's a Trainspotting reference, for those who haven't seen the movie. And if you haven't, you really should. It's great.

Thursday 15 April 2010

Knockspell #4 now available

Knockspell #4 is available now from Black Blade Publishing in both PDF and hard copy. I haven't had the chance to read it yet, but issues 1-3 were pretty damn good, and I don't expect issue 4 to be any other.

I did the cover image for this one (and for issue 2 too, back in the distant past).

Tuesday 13 April 2010


This is an old Grenadier figure from the mid-'80s (I think). I don't recall it actually being sold as the AD&D demon-lord Demogorgon, what with TSR being so litigation-happy back in those days, but it bears more than a passing resemblance to the illustration and description in the Monster Manual, and I've always thought of it as Demogorgon. It's roughly 65mm tall, to the top of its horn-fin-crest-thing.

Grenadier were always one of my favourite figure manufacturers, and certainly the best of the lot that were available locally (in New Zealand) in those days. Now that we have the internet, our options are substantially widened, thank goodness, but in terms of detail and casting quality, many of the old Grenadier figures stand with the best of the modern manufacturers. I certainly prefer them to most of the hideously cartoonish and overpriced garbage coming from GW.

I painted this some time ago, and just touched it up today with some washes and a hint of dry-brushing, and re-based it on to a 30mm steel panel washer.

I've taken to basing figures on steel washers for two reasons: first, because it makes them more stable when in use, and second because I can then store them on magnetic mats, and be confident that they won't rattle around against each other and chip all their paint off.

This is a drawing I did of that miniature.
Rotring pen on cartridge paper, about 150mm tall.

Monday 12 April 2010

Eeeeevil kobold babies? I think not

Leafing through various monster books, one will note that often enough an entire race or species of creatures will be described as being of Evil Alignment. This is something that irks me somewhat, though I can see that it might simplify matters for some people; after all, if all kobolds are innately Evil (with a capital E) then for somebody like a paladin, slaughtering them indiscriminately is not only OK, but a positive duty.

For me though, I think it's just Lame. With a capital L.

I prefer not to go with species-based Alignments, because I feel that it dilutes the concept of Alignment as a character-driver. Alignment (in my campaigns) is pretty much always a choice, unless you're playing a class like Paladin that has a specific Good Alignment restriction, or encountering outsider-creatures like demons, or undead, which are innately Evil (and in the case of demons and what not, probably also pretty evil).

In other words, for the purposes of detection, I make a distinction between Evil and evil, and between Good and good.

Having said that, in races/species like orcs there will likely be a higher proportion of Evil individuals than in some other races, due to there being more initiates of Evil cults and so forth.

Also, I'm not enamoured of the idea of evil/good detection acting like a pair of "Evil-Vision™" goggles. I prefer to run it as a fairly non-specific emotional awareness, with maybe a rough indication of direction if it's someone or something actively Evil (i.e. "there is Evil here.... " rather than "the third button down on that guy's waistcoat is an Evil button...")

If players in my campaigns want to go slaughtering infants, well that's fine I guess, if that's what floats their boat, even though I personally find it rather despicable. But I want them to make a moral choice to engage in that sort of behaviour, and not just leap at it because the Rules Say It's OK.

Just because you're Good, it doesn't mean that what you're doing isn't evil.

Postscript: I've noticed a few people on one of the message boards I frequent saying, on this subject, that they like having black and white racial stereotyping in their games because they don't want to bring "modern morality" into them. Several people said they preferred it because they play to "escape from real life". I may be generalizing here, but it sounds to me like the sub-text is "I want to act like a complete arsehole, but I can't get away with it in real life, so I want to be able to play-act it at least".

Of course, that's just my opinion.

The Rules and Me

As I've mentioned before, these days I'm running my game using the Swords & Wizardy rules, modified fairly extensively by an increasingly huge bunch of house-rules.

I've played with a fair number of RPG rulesets over the years, and have never yet found one that is perfect. A perfect ruleset, in my mind, would be one that can be learned well enough in half an hour for fun gaming purposes by a complete neophyte (while creating their first character), while sumultaneously allowing absolute flexibility and covering every conceivable eventuality in every conceivable genre. Surely that's not too much to ask?

My first gaming experience was with AD&D in 1981, and that has coloured my gaming preferences ever since. I loved the D&D milieu, but became increasing frustrated with the restrictions imposed by the game framework — restrictions like making it effectively impossible for any character to pick a lock or a pocket unless they actually had a level as a Thief, or to track anything unless they were a Ranger, and so on. They were restrictions that were implied rather than stated; nowhere (that I can recall) did it actually state in the Players Handbook or Dungeon Masters Guide that nobody else could attempt these tasks, but the fact that only Thieves had a specific success or failure mechanic stated implied that, since nobody else did, only they had any chance of success at thiefly activities.

All this is a consequence of the design decisions Gary Gygax made when he was putting together the altogether more regularized AD&D after the earlier, more free-wheeling years of OD&D. I have no idea whether he intended those systems to be proscriptive, but that was the effect.

Anyway, around the time that I started playing AD&D, Champions — the point-buy skills-and-powers based superhero RPG that eventually turned into the Hero System — was first published, and I was introduced to it by my friend Mark. It was a little while before I decided to adopt it myself for my fantasy campaigns, but adopt it I eventually did. With a break of a couple of years when D&D3e came out, I used Champions, and then the Hero System pretty much exclusively for all my campaigns — fantasy, space opera, cthulhoid horror, western, and so forth. I used it for longer than any other single system; in fact for longer than all other systems combined. I must admit though, that when it came to fantasy roleplaying I spent a lot of time trying to replicate the D&D experience.

The construction-kit nature of the Hero System meant that if a player wanted to build a lock-picking tracker with spell-casting abilities, they could. That seemed to me to be a huge advantage. There was hardly a situation I couldn't deal with using the rules as written, with the exception of absolute invulnerabilities (the Hero System doesn't do absolutes), and they were easy enough to work around. However, some situations required some pretty creative accounting with the construction rules to accommodate.

So why change?

Mainly because of that word — accounting. Character and monster building ended up becoming an exercise in number-juggling; sure, there was an initial creative spark required to come up with the concept, but then it was just a lot of fiddling and optimizing and accounting to build the thing. Later on, when it came time for the character or monster to meet each other in mortal combat, there was a whole lot more accounting to be done to determine the outcome. It's customary for proponents of some other RPG systems to mock Hero for the supposedly excrutiating length of time it takes to resolve even a few game-minutes of combat; that mockery tends to vastly overstate the actual complexities involved (and there's a pot-kettle situation there too with D&D3e — attacks of oppportunity or grappling, anybody?) but the criticisms do contain a kernel of truth.

In an attempt to explain and regularize the rules more fully, in theory (I think) to make them more accessible, the Hero System has become HUGE. The 5th edition core rules were a massive tome heavy enough to form their own gravity well; the new 6th edition is split into two volumes, each of which is about the same size as the whole 5th edition book. Then there are genre books and other supplements, some of which are almost as extensive as the core rules. That's a lot of information to absorb, even for someone as familiar as I am with the rules, and for a newcomer to roleplaying it's flat-out terrifying.

D&D has suffered from the same syndrome. In an attempt to regularize the rules so that there can be no ambiguity (a goal which has not, in my opinion, come close to being achieved even yet), and to cater to wider and wider player desires and expectations, the rules have become bloated beyond belief. The rulebooks certainly look a lot prettier and more colourful than they used to back in the '70s, but they've also become a lot less accessible.

A common criticism of players of older editions and their clones — or observation, call it what you will — by proponents of the more recent versions of D&D is that we're only playing them out of some misguided sense of nostalgia. Taking aside the pejorative intent, in my case that's true, but only to an extent. I'm not trying to recapture the glory days of my youth in roleplaying; that's never going to happen. The joy and wonder you experience when first learning to handle this rather bizarre hobby isn't replicable unless you suffer some kind of brain injury and forget everything you've already experienced. I am trying to replicate the experience of playing D&D, just as I did when I was using the Hero System exclusively, and that experience isn't satisfied (for me) by D&D3e, and even less by 4e.

The reason I'm playing Swords & Wizardry instead of AD&D is because, as I mentioned before, I found AD&D too proscriptive. I could be using the original little OD&D booklets, but frankly I find their organisation and layout awful. I was tempted by the D&D Rules Cyclopaedia (of 1991, I think), but by the time I got a copy I'd already pretty much sorted out my house-rules for S&W (and I do prefer ascending AC) so there didn't seem much point in changing the campaign over again. S&W gives me the D&D experience I'm looking for, but with more freedom of action for both players and DM.

Is it the perfect fantasy roleplaying ruleset? Not yet. That's why I keep tinkering with it. Maybe one day...

Friday 9 April 2010


As has been mentioned in oodles of other points on the Internet (the Great Mother, at whose Mighty Teats we daily suckle), the starter rules for classic Traveller have been released as a free download from RPGNow. Note that although they're described as "Starter" rules, they're by no means incomplete; these are, to all intents and purposes, the complete original rules plus some material from later editions.

There are also a bunch of supplements available for a couple of bucks each — Randall at RetroRoleplaying has links to some that he thinks (and I would tend to agree) are essentials.

Unfortunately, the PDFs are all just collections of scanned pages — they haven't been OCR'd, and the scanning quality is a bit variable. From what I've seen so far they look as though they're generally readable at least; I haven't tried printing any yet. If I get really enthused, I might try OCRing them myself so that I can reformat them to A5 and get decent-quality printouts for myself, but that will take a bit of effort, and I'm not (yet) sure that I can be bothered.

I always really liked Traveller, though we didn't play it very much back in the day, being mostly focused on AD&D. Most of my sci-fi gaming in more recent years has been in the Hero System, using their excellent Star Hero and Terran Empire supplements, but I adopted several of the tropes popularized by Traveller into my Hero campaign.

I'm also a huge fan of Joss Whedon's Firefly TV series, and the movie Serenity, and have for some time had a growing urge to run a campaign based, if not actually on Serenity, at least in that milieu. Traveller would be a perfect fit for it, I think, as it (as I remember the game) always seemed to concentrate on the seedier underbelly of a shiny technologically-advanced future.

I'm quite looking forward to actually reading the rules for myself, as I never owned a set of my own when we were actually playing the game.

Postscript: I printed the Rules and Charts & Tables booklets digest-size, and they printed out just fine. The text prints a little coarse; it would have been better if it had actually been text rather than a bitmap of some text, but I guess beggars can't be looking gift horses in the glass house. Or something. The originals appear to have been formatted with fairly small type on letter-size pages, so the text is pretty microscopic when shrunk down to digest-sized pages; I won't be reading much of it without my glasses I suspect.

Tuesday 6 April 2010

Game report: Against the Giants... er, Kobolds

The party:
  • Zosia, a tiny (but perfectly formed) elf, a fighter-mage
  • Able, trying (with only erratic success) to be a paladin of Tyr, but lacking a mentor, having to figure it out as he goes along. Currently on probation, having failed to rescue a maiden in distress (he thought it was an illusion)
  • Heidi, a warrior-maid who recently found herself hag-rid and eventually died of it. She got better, but is still rather floppy and is in recovery at Rath Donnan
  • Morgan, a ranger and undead-hunter
  • Siegfrida, a valkyrie, sent to oversee Able's probation and atonement quest
Our valiant crew have plunged into the depths of the earth (again, having been driven ignominiously off from their first attempt) in search of the hapless maiden seen being carried off by an ogre, and the cause of Able's fall from grace.

They battered their way through various traps, massacred their way past a delaying force of kobolds behind a barricade, chased their way after the sole surviving kobold, and found themselves in front of a pair of massive figured bronze-clad doors, behind which (as Zosia learned via a Clairvoyance spell) lies the Hall of the Kobold King, full of highly-agitated kobolds.

Subtlety has not, thus far, been their strong suit.

You will observe the haunting beauty and painstaking precision of my carefully-crafted dungeon map :)

Anyway, Able's brute force having failed to budge the massive doors, Morgan the ranger elected to use his brains instead of his Mighty Thews, and went looking for some sneaky kobold-tunnel by which the kobold they were chasing might have by-passed the door. Success! He found a cunningly concealed tunnel to the right of the door.
Note: it should have been to the left, but I wasn't looking at my map when I described it to the party. Hey-ho, it made no real difference anyway.

Zosia, being the most petite of the crew, crawled into the tiny 2' by 2' tunnel and found a Cunning Trap by virtue of falling face-forward into a concealed pit and on to some nasty and insanitary spikes. Fortunately her wounds were relatively minor and the rest of the party by-passed the pit successfully, though the passage being so restricted they had to take off all their armour and gear to get through.

Able bravely led the way into the hall, which he found to be pitch dark and (as far as he could tell by the light of his lamp) deserted. He soon came under arrow fire from out of the darkness, and began running about trying to come to grips with an opponent — with no success, and looking more and more like a porcupine as more and more of the tiny arrows found their target. Noting that the arrows seemed to be coming from above, he hypothesized the existence of a mezzanine and tried climbing the huge, figured bronze doors....

Zosia was next into the hall, and she too came under arrow fire. Fortunately, being so small, she had not had to doff her armour and immediately cast a blinding Pyrotechnics spell, using Able's lamp as the flame source. It worked beautifully; there were shrieks of outrage and surprise from the kobolds behind their arrow-slits. Unfortunately it also blinded Able, who was left clinging half-way up the door. Being a PC and not a Real Person, he dropped the fifteen feet or so to the floor without a second thought, and stumbled away (still blind) without so much as a sprained ankle.

Back to the report again after a  break of a couple of days. I'll summarize the rest:

  • Zosia put Protection from Normal Missiles on Able and Morgan to protect them while they struggled back into their armour.
  • Kobolds dropped jars full of very angry hornets among the party.
  • Zosia isolated the hornets with a Wall of Ice spell.
  • Party investigated the dais and throne at the far end of the hall, with Able and Morgan acting as arrow-shields for the other two. Able found a secret shaft leading straight down to a nasty funnel-pit, into which he accidentally dropped his lantern. The resulting flare revealed a small tunnel leading off to one side of the shaft.
  • Zosia Polymorphed herself into a pixie and flew down the passage, finding that it descended down a couple of short flights of stairs and ended in a dead end. Suspecting a secret door, she searched for, and found, and opened one.
  • Able climbed down his grapnel-rope and, by virtue of his acrobatic ability, managed to wriggle into the rather claustrophobic passage. About twenty or thirty feet in, he tripped a nasty spring-spike trap that skewered him in a dozen places or more — OW!
  • Siegfrieda, coming behind him, retrieved his hacksaw form the Bag of Stuff he was dragging behind him and started cutting him free from her end. Being a PC and not a Real Person, Ables remained staunch and stoic through the process instead of squealing and crying like a little girl. I myself would squeal and cry like a little girl. OW!
  • Zosia finished cutting him free from the other end, and dragged him out, down two flights of stairs and around a tight bend. Again — staunch and stoic.
  • Morgan, more or less forgotten up on the dais, fended off a massed rush by kobolds with nets and mancatchers by hurling molotov cocktails at them, and slid down the rope and into the passage.
  • The party have emerged into what looks like a garden. There is grass underfoot, flowers and fern beds about, and what appears to be daylight coming from above, though the "sky" is a featureless haze. The walls of the garden-chamber are tiled in large, faience plaques bearing an arabesque design in greens and browns.
  • Zosia and Siegfrieda extracted the sawn-off spikes from Able with a pair of pliers — still remarkably staunch and stoic. Amazing what these imaginary people can endure.
  • Zosia healed Able somewhat. Still no sign of the kobold king they were looking for.
That's it for that session.

Saturday 3 April 2010

Full Canvas Jacket

I've been a fan of the WW1 aerial combat sim Red Baron since I first played it back in the dim dark past. When Red Baron II (and then Red Baron 3d) appeared I got that too and played it a lot; RBII was less fun as a game than RB1, mainly because the flight model and so forth was much more accurate, so everything got a lot harder, but it was much more satisfying as a WW1 flight sim.

When the games were released, the graphics were pretty good (the image to the left is a Sopwith Snipe in Red Baron II) especially if you had a Voodoo Glide video card. But RB3d was released back in the '90s, and things have moved on since then. They started looking very dated.

Anyway, a few years ago (about '05 I think) the Full Canvas Jacket superpatch was released, and I just bought a copy. Oddly, in this age of fast high-bandwidth internettings, I couldn't get it as a download, but had to buy an actual physical CD via Ebay... pretty quaint, huh. The disc took about a month to arrive in New Zealand from the States.

I installed it a few days ago, and started playing. It improved the graphics incredibly — see the screenshots to the right compared with the Sopwith Snipe from RBII above — and also made flying (and shooting other planes down) much, much more difficult. If RBII was harder than RB1, this is even harder again, and is probably a lot closer to the actual experience of new pilots (minus the bowel-loosening sprays of castor oil and sheer terror, of course). The aircraft models and textures are exquisite, and the landscape and sky actually looks like landscape and sky rather than an approximation of them knocked up in MS Paint. Screen resolutions are higher, and aircraft and objects are identifiable at longer ranges than in the original game. Anti-aircraft fire, smoke and fire effects look pretty naturalistic. As far as the graphics go, I'm highly impressed. All the sounds have been redone too, and engine noise now varies depending on what plane you're flying, and different machine-guns make their own characteristic sound. Bullet hits sound different depending on what they strike — wood, canvas, metal... or a pilot or observer. It's a big improvement over the original game sounds.

Unfortunately, it comes at a price (apart from the $35 I paid for the disc). For some reason it throws a fit whenever I finish a mission or exit out of the "Fly Now" instant-dogfight thing, and crashes the game to the desktop.

That makes the overall game a lot less interesting, since it means the results of campaign missions aren't saved, and unless you delete the mission files, next time you have to start the same mission all over again. Therefore there's no progress, and even if you delete the mission files so that the game has to generate a new one, the game is reduced to a series of dislocated episodes with no continuity.

From what I've read in various parts of the internet, this appears to be a pretty common problem with the Full Canvas Jacket superpatch, and although plenty of guesses and suggestions have been made as to how to fix it, none of them have worked for me. Unfortunately I suspect that it's to do with the fact that the game was originally written for much older hardware, and OS and video software, so there may in fact not be all that much that can be done.

I guess I won't be playing any campaigns then, which is sad.

Unfortunately I know so little about game graphics software and hardware that I have no chance whatever of sorting it out on my own.

If you don't mind not being able to play a campaign, and don't mind having to delete mission files and restart the program after every mission, FCJ is pretty sweet. Otherwise, I really couldn't recommend it, even though it really does look and sound fantastic.

Technical notes: I'm running Vista on an Intel 2.13GHz Acer machine with 2GB RAM, and a Nvidia GeForce 450 video card with 256MB onboard. I'm using the latest version of the OpenGlide wrapper.