Friday, 16 October 2020

GRIMLITE Composite Scenarios

Scenarios can tell you about the world around your wargame. 

Yesterday I played GRIMLITE against Zach in the first live test of the new Scenario system I've put in place. It works like this:

A Scenario is essentially made up of two halves: the Mission and the Scene.

The Mission sets the main goal of the battle for at least one of the sides. Maybe your leaders are facing off in a duel, one side is trying to break through to the other side of the board, or both sides are just trying to withstand waves of Horrors until they can be extracted. 

The Scene sets the environment. There's often a special rule at play, random events that trigger at the end of each round, and a secondary objective for one or more side to compete for. Maybe an immortal guardian watches over a powerful relic, precarious towers offer vital intel, or exterminators are purging swarms of horrors (and you if you get in the way). It even gives you some special rewards you can earn at the end of the battle instead of drawing from your Faction's normal list.

Both of these halves also have Twists available if you want to make things really messy. Maybe the Relic is guarded by three immortal guardians instead of one, but they're dormant and you might be able to bypass them altogether, or maybe your Breakthrough mission involves giant turrets that can be controlled by either side. 

Grab a Mission and a Scene and smash them together for an interesting two-layered Scenario. 

Both of these halves have notes for how to alter them for solo or coop play.

This all fits with my goal for GRIMLITE to be more of an RPG-syle toolbox than a dense swiss-watch ruleset. Short, simple rules followed by a big pile of stuff that you can use them for.

This sort of composite-scenario system is certainly nothing new, but with some expansion I think it could inform the player about the world in a direct way, a method I've obviously enjoyed in the past. Bounty Hunts and Relics and Warzones aren't anything ground-breaking, but they each imply something about the world. This is something I want to push further as work on the game continues. 

Unfinished Horrors waiting to prey on your Warband

So about that playtest against Zach.

I got trounced pretty thoroughly, but through a fortunate finish I was able to grab two Glory against his three. Getting beaten but still having a good time, and never quite losing hope, is a reassuring result.

But the real measure of this game is whether a narrative emerged from the battle, and I'm pretty confident it did. I should clarify that neither of us really spoke about the narrative of our warbands or the battle beforehand other than "right, this is the mission, this is the scene, we're using these Horrors, and let's look at each other's warbands". 

Yet after the battle I looked back on it and really felt like there was a story unfolding, and that story was telling us something about the world.

  • Our Scenario was Breakthrough (I had to get to the other side of the board) and Warzone (There were survivors we could rescue for Glory and some very nasty random events at the end of each Round). From my point of view this made the situation feel very hostile. 
  • My warband was mostly melee, while Zach's was more shooty. In particular his Leader was essentially acting as a sniper for most of the game, and I just couldn't dislodge them. It really felt like I was running into hostile ground knowing that most of my units wouldn't make it to the other side. But if I could just get one or two back there it would all be worth it.
  • The sheer danger of the Warzone, which saw us taking fire from off the board at the end of most rounds, set upon by Horrors, all while trying to coax chaotic Survivors to safety. This is clearly a world where our Warbands aren't great powers, but are caught in bigger crossfires, and often outmatched by the lurking horrors.
  • On the penultimate round one of the usually-pacifist survivors ran decisively across the battlefield towards my leader. I thought this was a stroke of luck, now my leader can guide them to safety on the next Round. Yet the end of round event saw that same Survivor charge into my already downed leader and stab them with a hidden knife. Luckily the Leader survived, but nobody in this world should be trusted as truly safe.
  • In this particular mission there wasn't any Glory to be earned directly for killing Horrors, so we both started the game focusing on killing each other. A few rounds later we both realised we'd underestimated the threat of the Horrors, and where they weren't tying up our units they were outright killing them. Remember, no matter how much you might want to take the fight to your enemy, the world around you is just as eager to kill you. 

I was concerned that the combination of Mission and Scene would make things feel too complicated, but with the rules themselves being so simple it's all very manageable, especially once both players are familiar with the game.

It feels like if we played the same Mission with a different Scene, or vice versa, it would have felt significantly different.

Maybe next time a Breakthrough in Darkness? Would have certainly helped me avoid all that sniper fire.

Or back into the Warzone for a Duel between our leaders? Feels like there's a score to be settled there.

Next in line is the Campaign system. In the mean time let me know if you manage to get GRIMLITE to the table as solo, coop, or competitive. 

Monday, 12 October 2020

Settings for Games: The Importance of Answers

This is the continuation of a loose series of posts about the relationship between a game and its setting. I've written before about how a setting should serve the game, but as I've mulled it over I think it's more of a two-way relationship than I'd previously written. 

Specifically, I think I've overstated the need for a setting that creates Questions. Sometimes you really do need some Answers too.



Critical Answers

I've spoken about how I like artwork that raises interesting questions about the world, but here I'm talking about answers to questions that the GM or Player might have about a setting they're exploring.

We've all bought games, thinking the setting sounded like a cool place to run a game, then read through it and realised we have no idea what a game in that world would actually look like. For me, this comes down to unanswered critical questions.

It's a very specific sort of question.

A setting doesn't need to answer every question a player could have about the world, but there are generally a few critical questions any prospective GM would have about the setting they're preparing to run, and it pays to include answers.

At its most basic level: 

Why are these characters together? 

What might the start of a session look like? 

What sort of opposition will the characters face?

But depending on how the game goes, your critical questions might also include: 

What happens if we fail at our main objective?

We got super rich really quickly, what can I spend it on?

The players have decided this dungeon is too dangerous and they want to go home, how does the world respond to that?

Lots of blogs have written variants on the theme of "Here are 20 Questions to ask yourself about your setting before running a game", so nothing new here, but the key is being able to pick out which questions are truly Critical, and which are not. As usual there isn't going to be a hard boundary here, but best-fit is still useful.

Really it's any question that, if left unanswered, might cause the game to significantly stall while the GM has to create an answer without support from the setting.

To use Electric Bastionland as an example, one of the first lines of text in the book explains that the group have all come into a shared debt, and have decided to become Treasure Hunters to try and pay it off. This answers a number of common Critical Questions in one very short piece of text. I don't like to brag, but I'm quite proud of this little part of the game.

And what's more, that Debt mechanic actually serves double-duty by also prompting...

Flavourful Answers

This is more akin to the purpose of question-based artwork. Answers to the weird little questions that players might ask while engaging in the game. 

In the case of the Debt mechanic: Why are we in debt? And why together?

So the game answers them. You're assigned a Debtholder, but it's not fully explained how you got into debt with them. You get just enough to make your own interesting answer.

Any why are we all in Debt together? Well hopefully the Conductor has read the section on Bastion, because there are three bullet-points designed to answer all questions like this.


Why are you in debt together?  Well everything in Bastion is Shared and Complicated. It's a quirk of Bureaucracy. Welcome to Bastion!

It's a question somebody might ask for purely game-related reasons, but the answer hits them in the face with some setting-flavour before they realise you're engaging them in the world.

This is related to the idea of considering the specific and generic elements in your setting. You can take your generic components like "the city" or "orcs" and add in your specific flavour by thinking about the questions players might ask during a game and tying the flavour to those answers.

Why are we kitted out like Dark Age peasants while the Orcs all have submachineguns? 

Answering that question in-game goes a much longer way to engaging the players with your world than including an opening chapter of fiction describing how the Orcs came to develop such advanced weapons.

The Test

When you're wondering whether a question is worth answering in your game, consider that your players ask it to you and the only answer you have it "You don't know. You'd have to investigate that yourself".

If that sounds like a fun answer to your question then don't break a sweat over it. Add a Flavourful Answer in there if you think you've got something better than what the GM would just invent on the fly, otherwise leave it open.

If it sounds like not having a somewhat solid answer to that question would stall the game? That's a Critical Question. Find a way to impart the answer into at least the GM, but ideally the players too, and as early on in the game as you can manage. 

Wednesday, 7 October 2020

GRIMLITE Identity

I should stop giving my games stupid joke names that end up being impossible to shake. 

GRIMLITE is clearly a nod to wanting a rules-lite version of certain Grim Dark games. I was experimenting with the name Husk 28 as a nod to some other inspirations but I'm starting to think I should accept that GRIMLITE might be here to stay for the time being.

But despite that, I feel like I have a stronger sense of the game's identity after continued testing and getting carried away with building warbands and horrors. More specifically, I feel like the identity of the game is informing the identity of the world. 

The game started as an excuse to kitbash 40k miniatures with other lines and bring some of that Inq28 feel to a very simple, fast game. Now I feel like I can go further than "40k with the serial numbers filed off". I could avoid all reference to 40k and pretend the influence isn't there, but I'd rather highlight the differences while embracing that initial inspiration.

My settings are always going to reflect the reality of what happens at the table, and in this case that reality is moulded by both the game table and the modelling table. 

As with Into the Odd and Electric Bastionland, this isn't a game that will ever come with pages of lore. I want a setting infused into the actual content of the game. This is more of a style-guide, equally intended for myself and anybody else that wants to explore the game.

Inconsistent Technology

Blending sci-fi and medieval elements is past cliché at this point, but it works and I love it.

It might vary among the factions, but as a rule-of-thumb I like giving my Leader and their favoured followers more of a sci-fi look, while keeping the grunts of the warband in more of a medieval light. Remember, this world is forgotten. The Company brought peace, but that's a slice of sci-fi sandwiched between two more grimy periods: the faded legacy of the pre-Company world, and the neo dark age abandonment of today.

Of course it's all an excuse to mix 40k accessories in with the Frostgrave plastic sets, kit out some Skitarii like feudal knights, and throw those creations against each other.

Modest Scale

Warbands, not armies. Chapels, not cathedrals. Today, not ten thousand years of lore. This forgotten world, not an unknowable galaxy. 

Even the most formidable opponent can be brought down with a piercer shot and have their throat cut as they lie on the ground. 

They might be robots, mutants, or aliens, but there's a certain modesty implied here compared to towering Primaris super-soldiers. My Paragon (4+, Tough) is basically a bulky bloke with chain and plate armour. Even my leaders have a certain fragility to them, with oversized power-fists and plasma-guns looking slightly out of scale next to their very mortal bodies. 

Personal Focus

You are not a nameless individual among a billion humans, doomed to die a pointless death. Even your most humble followers will likely stick with you through multiple battles. Name them, watch them grow, and remember their deeds. 

Likewise, even though your warbands will be one of four types, the term "Faction" is misleading. There's no grand council of the Inheritors, no centralised Welder government, and no Splicer Queen. Think, instead, of these warbands options are more of a "best fit" for your particular group of individuals. They don't really owe allegiance to any higher power than your Leader. It's small-scale feudalism in a fractured world. 

The Company abandoned us, so why pledge loyalty to any besides your closest companions? Why trust a name on a piece of paper when you can trust the one person you know that has a machinegun?

The campaign is more likely to be a personal vendetta or quest rather than some chain of missions in service of a planet-wide operation. Your world is firmly rooted in the 5-9 models that you've built and brought to the table.


If you've been exploring your own version of GRIMLITE, be sure to let me know, and if you're curious then you can watch live gameplay on Twitch and catch up on Youtube.

Tuesday, 15 September 2020

Specific vs Generic: Ornaments & Bricks

The settings that really grab my attention have a way of drawing you in with little details. Servo skulls in Warhammer 40k. Carrion Priests in Spire. The noise of a TIE Fighter in Star Wars. Here it pays to be very specific, and if you get it right then the reader/viewer/player should feel their imagination racing to life around this one small piece of your world.




To counter that, a setting that's overloaded with specific elements can feel restrictive, intimidating, or tonally inconsistent within itself. Sometimes a world that's thoroughly planned out is less interesting than one with gaps. There are times when it pays to stay generic. We hardly need to know more about the' Empire and the Rebellion than their name to start to understand them. 

It's a bit like what I wrote about here, but more focused on the overall structure of a setting than the artwork. Let me apply an over-important theory to this.

Specific elements are your Ornaments. These are the things that give your world life and identity. In Electric Bastionland this could be any of the Failed Careers or Oddities. You aren't a Fighter or a Rogue, you're specifically an Avant Guardsman or a Counterfeit Taxidermist. 

Generic elements are your Bricks. These are basic pieces that aren't interesting on their own, but imagination unlocks their potential. In Electric Bastionland most weapons are Bricks. They have a damage die, maybe they're Bulky or do Blast damage, but that's about it. There's no list of fifty weapon types with subtly different mechanics here. The differences between a Sword (d6) and an Axe (d6) exist largely within your imagination. 

Really I was thinking of Lego with this analogy. Think of the Specific Ornament elements as those fancy pieces like a crocodile or set of wheels. They're designed to catch your eye and do a mostly specific thing. These are the pieces that might give you the idea to build a crocodile-car, but it's only the generic bricks that allow the idea to become a reality.

With Electric Bastionland most of the Ornaments are weird characters or objects, but they're held up by a bare-bones system and a vague approach to setting specifics. Bastion is a specific city, but beyond a few core principles it's actually more of an expansion on the generic idea of a city.

When the system and world are both so simple it's easy for me to give the Avant Guardsman a trained attack bear when all of the required mechanics fit neatly on a single line and I don't have to worry about the canonical impact. If I got fancy and designed a new specific sub-system for bear-training, and slipped in a paragraph about the impact of bear-training guardsmen on the city of Bastion as a whole... well you can see how things would get out of control after a while.

GRIMLITE is slightly different. As with so many other miniature games, it's very much designed to be an excuse to kitbash miniatures together and face them off against each other. Here it pays to be vague, but if I use nothing but generic lego bricks then why should anybody care? What's the point in me making this game for anybody but myself?

This is where the balance comes in. There are specific elements in there, but they're also functioning as bricks. Maybe this analogy is falling apart, but where a wargame tied to an official line of miniatures might want a very specific visual identity for their units, I want to keep things vague enough that you and I might both have very different miniatures representing the same unit, but both are equally valid.

This wouldn't be the case if I was overly specific, like this:

Argastes, Rust Priest (3+)
A lithe, brown-robed priest overrun by the nano-corrosion that he serves. His melted-face is hidden behind a skeletal mask and his legs replaced by a mass of iron tendrils.
Oxidiation Pistol (T1x5, one-handed: A sleek, glowing pistol with optic sights)
Shock Pick (T1x3, two handed, connected to Power Pack. Bears the symbol of his order, a half-corroded skull)
Ever-Server - Bipedal Rust-Acolyte and Scroll-Bearer: Once per battle ignore one wound as Ever-Server conjurs an immaterial shield from his texts.
Tactic: Invoke the Nano-Prism - All your units attempt a Free Recovery.

And equally, things quickly become entirely uninspiring when you get too generic, like this: 

Priest (3+)
Gun (T1x5)
Melee Weapon (T1x3)
Accessory: Once per battle ignore one wound.
Tactic: All your units attempt a Free Recovery.

So the actual entry looks like this, which I'm hoping gives enough inspiration to spark your imagination but doesn't tie you down to needing the exact miniature that I had in mind:

Argastes, Rust Priest (3+)
Oxidiser (T1x5)
Shock Pick (T1x3)
Assistant: Once per battle ignore one wound.
Tactic: Arise - All your units attempt a Free Recovery.


The Oxidiser is perhaps the best example here. The name conjures ideas around what the weapon could be, but it really doesn't limit how that weapon might look. I have it as a weird pistol, but you might model yours as a slender beam weapon or a chunky, experimental energy cannon.

It's a tough tightrope to walk, and I think every game should carefully consider how it balances its Specific and Generic elements.

Thursday, 3 September 2020

GRIMLITE Demo and a Break

 For those that missed the stream, my solo run-through of GRIMLITE is now up on the YouTube Channel for viewing.

Also, don't be alarmed when I'm quiet for the next week, as I'm taking a break, returning on Monday 14th September. As such there won't be a Bastionland Broadcast next week, returning on Tuesday 15th with a new episode of Bastionspiration.

However, Bastionland Podcast will update in my absence, with a new Niche Explorer episode dropping on Monday as normal. 

Monday, 24 August 2020

Bastionland Podcast - Niche Explorer

The Bastionland Podcast is back for a second series! This series is dubbed Niche Explorer, and I'll be welcoming a new guest each week to dip into their particular niche of tabletop gaming.

For the first episode I was joined by Joseph McCullough of Frostgrave fame, where we talked about miniature wargaming and its relationship with RPGs. 

Enjoy!

Thursday, 20 August 2020

Framing Weirdness


Bastionland has a lot of weird stuff. The closest thing to an introductory adventure has, among other things:
  • Dirt and worm worshipping teenagers
  • A hedgehog judge with other animals as servants
  • Slugs piloting mechanical bodies
  • A lonely whalebone mech
That's quite a lot of strangeness to throw at your players in game one, not even factoring in that the characters themselves might be a bunch of pretty weird individuals.

Some groups will lap this up, it can help some groups to consider how they present the weird elements. Remember that, at large, Bastionland is deliberately designed to be somewhat more mundane than a typical fantasy setting.

That is to say that for most residents of Bastionland, life doesn't look all that different to life today. Most people live in the city, they have a job they applied for, they buy food from the shops, they listen to their music collection and indulge in hobbies with their friends at the weekend.

This might seem like I'm stating the obvious, but in a more medieval-style world none of the above would be taken for granted by an average person. 

So I wanted to present a few tools for framing the weirder elements of your Bastionland if you're finding it a touch too much to take neat.

Dilution Reveals Flavour


Going hard on the whisky analogy here. Fancy drinkers will tell you to put a few drops of water into your whisky, even more if it's cask strength, which lets the flavour open up. Think of weirdness like your alcohol content here. It's got a lot of flavour, but too much and you only get the burn, or in this case weirdness-overload. 

Yes, you can make your entire Borough head to tail bonkers, but it might be tough to stomach. Sometimes reining it back in is the right way to go. 

I'm aware of the hypocrisy here, as I'm normally more of a "Go big! Subtlety is overrated" sort of GM, but it's really about reading your group. I'd still advise things like big, impactful consequences for actions, and strongly defined, memorable characters, but for your setting as a whole it's sometimes nice to have...

A Solid Foundation


Cities are already weird and confusing. Don't be afraid to just let Bastion be a city. Yeah, you can turn it up to 11, but it's a familiar song. 

If your campaign centres around an alien world where gravity is tidal and everybody is telepathic then you're on uncertain ground from day one. Rely on Bastionland's solid foundation of something that the players can relate to. Even if you don't want to go for the city route, Deep Country should hold elements that are familiar to anybody that's spent time in rural areas.

For this reason I wouldn't really advise a game set entirely in the Underground. For me it works as a new level of weirdness that you descend into, before returning to that solid foundation in Bastion or Deep Country. 

Weird Empathy


Incomprehensible alien intelligence can make for appealing antagonists, but I like to make even the weirdest characters relatable. Give them a good, strong drive or emotion that we can all sympathise with. To use the example of ABYSS in the Prison of the Worm Queen, he's lonely. The actions he takes are hopefully different to how we would react to loneliness, but the core is the same.

I don't go into too much detail in the actual document, but when I've run the game I do everything I can to make the players feel that loneliness. It might feel strange, like this is the "boss monster" right? If you make the players empathise too much won't they just refuse to fight it? Well, yeah. That happens quite often, and in my eyes it can lead to much more interesting situations than a fight.

Cloak of Mundanity


A common trick with modern-weird and alternate-history settings. Keep the surface level of everything relatively normal. Push the Mockeries and Aliens far into the background. Leave the machines in the Underground. Bastion is big and messy, but mostly has familiar elements.

It's definitely not how I'd run the game, especially for one-shots, but if you're still getting to grips with your idea of Bastionland, and your players are perhaps less exposed to weird fiction and fantasy it can be a good way to ease them into a longer campaign where they gradually discover the strange elements of the setting one by one. 

Thursday, 13 August 2020

Small Decisions, Big Impact

Working on a miniatures game has been an interesting contrast to RPG design. It's a narrative-focused wargame, but the fact is miniature games rely a lot more on their rules than RPGs do.

With RPGs so much of the joy can come from situations outside of the rules. Even with a narrative wargame I don't feel like I can let go of the mechanical wheel quite so easily. As a result the mechanics in GRIMLITE feel like they're carrying a lot more weight than the mechanics in Electric Bastionland. You can tear through a good RPG session on pure GM and group cohesion alone, barely touching the game itself, but that just isn't possible on the miniatures table.

But I've quite enjoyed that. It lets me really focus in on every single rule in GRIMLITE, thinking about the impact it has on the game. Even more so, it lets me look at typical wargame rules that GRIMLITE doesn't include, and what effect their omission has on things.

I thought it might be interesting to look at some specific examples here. It's too early to judge GRIMLITE as a whole, but I've done enough test games now to get a grip on the impact of some of the individual parts.


Advancement through Trophies and (sometimes) Dying

In GRIMLITE there are two ways to improve your warband: getting trophies from killing Horrors or getting a lucky roll (1-in-3 chance) on your Casualty roll falling in battle. I considered having units gain experience through killing enemies, but much as with D&D I found that had undesirable consequences. Battles would be more about wiping out the enemy than actually chasing your objectives, and the first side to get a numerical advantage would be encouraged to grind away at the remaining enemies rather than focusing on the trophies.

This approach is very much the equivalent of "Gold for XP" that's so popular in OSR games, and I think it translates nicely over to this format too. You'll still want to kill your enemies, but you'll be doing it for strategic reasons instead of chasing abstract points.

Withdrawal or Slaughter

There are two possible triggers for the battle to end. Slaughter is easy, one side is wiped out. Withdrawal can be triggered by either side at the end of a Round if at least half of their remaining units are touching a table edge, with these units immediately leaving the board safely. 

After either trigger occurs, players perform one final Round, trying to sweep up the remaining Trophies.

Endgame always felt weird to me in wargames. I remember playing Warhammer Fantasy Battles and wondering what happens at the end of that last round. My heavy infantry that got so close to charging the enemy now just turn around and go home? Everybody agrees to stop shooting each other?

It's an abstraction of course, and a necessary one. It might be more realistic for battles to end on a whimper but it's more satisfying for a game to have a clear finish. I think the Final Round element here at least gives a bit of narrative sense to the whole thing, and on Husk 28 it's easy to imagine a dust storm sweeping in or more Horrors on the horizon to provide that time pressure. 

My goal here was to make Slaughter generally less common than Withdrawal. This is a wargame, and the two warbands should fight each other, but again I wanted to keep the focus on the objective, not a fight to the death. The opponents are rivals more than arch enemies, at least until grudges inevitably form.

So here if one warband takes losses it's relatively easy for the remaining members to form a retreat, but giving the other warband a full Round of uninterrupted action means Withdrawal isn't seen as an absolute solution for any battle that's going against you. 

No Stacking

Each type of roll you make has exactly one modifier that can ever be applied to it, and it's always plus or minus 1.

Shooting into Cover is -1.

Fighting a Downed target is +1

Recovery is +1 when an Ally is touching you.

Moving is +1 when you can see your Leader.

Resist is the exception here, currently having no modifier applied to it. I'm leaving that design space open but also I'm not going to put a rule here just for symmetry's sake. It's also arguably the most useful type of roll, so any modifier would have to be very carefully considered.

This was an outright goal early on (No Stacking, No Tracking) but as well as the desired effect of keeping things simple I think it also shines a spotlight on that particular modifier. Without dozens of little +1s to remember you know that when somebody is Downed you should get a melee fighter in there. You know that your Leader is best kept in sight of your units, and your Initiates are more survivable if kept in pairs to help each other back onto their feet. 

By honing in on a single modifier for each type of activity it makes those modifiers feel all the more important to exploit. 

No Weapon Ranges

As you'd expect, when you remove the range element from shooting it becomes all about line-of-sight. Precise range management gives way to getting into a position where you can duck in and out of cover while having a clear view of the battlefield. Makes everybody feel a bit more daring and active. Less incentive to sit still in that ideal firing spot. 

This certainly relies on a small board and dense terrain, but that's clear from the start of the document. I think with anything above 3x3ft you're going to run into weird niche situations where a unit gets just-about line of sight on an enemy 48 inches away and gets to fire their pistol across a football field.

Weapon Transparency

Barring the weapon mods, weapons are generally split into two types: one high-damage shot or several one-damage shots. In terms of raw damage potential the former are always more efficient, but you're putting all of your eggs in one basket. And maybe you just don't need that much damage.

If you're shooting an Initiate, they're resisting damage on 5+, so 3 damage will on-average kill them. This happens to be the damage score of a basic high-damage weapon. But even hitting this Initiate with a one-damage shot will likely Down them, and their chances of recovery are low, especially if they're on their own. Do you really NEED that full three damage or are you better using a 2x1 weapon that can reliably down these low-quality troops?

Meanwhile, against a Leader or other powerful target that's resisting on 3+ your 1 damage probably isn't going to do anything. Even if you hit with both your 2x1 shots you've only got just over a 50% chance of downing the target, and an 11% chance to kill them. 

Hit with that 1x3 Rifle instead and you've got a 70% chance of Downing them and around 33% chance to kill. A lot better, and even if you just Down the target you've got an opportunity to get a Melee fighter in to finish the job. 

So you might be looking at all those percentages and think "this isn't very transparent", but the key is that there are really only two types of weapon. Those that are good for killing grunts, and those that are good for killing high-powered targets. Not that each of these can't also perform the other task, but the specialisation is clear. You don't have to look a target and consider 3 or 4 ways in which they might be mechanically "tough". 

Are they hard to hit? High Toughness? High Armour? High Wounds? Have an invulnerable save? Some other bullshit? No, forget all that. You know that your rifle is good for toughies and your shotgun is good for grunts. Now get your attention back on the battlefield and out of the stat-blocks. 

Shoot Once, Fight Twice, Move Thrice

I wanted the game to feel mobile, so having three potentially long-distance movement actions in a turn was scary at first, but combined with the need to roll for Moves after your first I think it gives the game the desired mobility. It especially makes the Nimble skill feel impactful, a fact you'll appreciate after your first few attempts to get your QL5+ units to move where they need to be.

With Ranged having an innate advantage over Melee combat I wanted to give Melee some sort of advantage to even the scales. An easy fix is just making Melee weapons cheaper than their Ranged equivalents, but this isn't a game of finely balanced point costs. Shooting was already limited to once-per-turn, so allowing two Fight actions felt right. If you could charge in with your first action then getting to wail on your opponent twice felt nice and deadly, especially if you Down them with your first attack and get that juicy +1 on your second attack. My Exile Hounds (Nimble 5+ T2x1) were especially useful in my last game, darting around the battlefield somewhat reliably and proving especially useful for finishing off downed enemies, especially considering their cheap cost. 

There's plenty more work to do on GRIMLITE but I'm pretty happy with the core right now. Expect to hear more as I try and polish this up into something a bit more complete.

Tuesday, 11 August 2020

GRIMLITE Horrors in Action

With GRIMLITE's new focus on Horrors I wanted to do a quick battle report to show how they work in action and show how the rules work in a little more detail.

As such this might end up being quite a long post, so buckle up. 

So let's start from the beginning. Forget the Sample Warbands, we're making two from scratch.

SPLICER COVEN

The twisted and warped arm of humanity that believe we need to fundamentally change our biology in order to survive this new world. 

While the four factions were initially designed to cover broad modelling concepts (humans, mutants, cyborgs, aliens) and inspire kitbashing, they've picked up more mechanical identity along the way. Splicers have some really cheap Initiates they can hire to bulk out numbers and have some of the more interesting big-gun options for their Leaders and Initiates. As you'd expect they also have much more Skill flexibility than other factions, able to morph their form to whatever needs you have.

But back to reality, I'm going to base my purchases almost entirely on the models I want to bring to the table. I have a couple of Engineer guys that I'd like to bring to bear, so let's keep the Leader cheap to maximise the points we have to spend on them.

We'll keep our Leader relatively lean, a Host (3+) with a nice cheap Shotgun (2x1). We can choose any Skill, so we'll take Elusive to give them the best chance to grab Trophies without getting shot down. They bring the Polymorph tactic that, one per Round, lets us permanently change that Skill, so we can always adapt if things turn ugly.

That leaves us with 14pts, enough to take our two Engineers and give each of them a full 3pt weapon. We take one with a Grav Warper and one with a Storm Cannon. 

So we've got a very small warband with a fast, lightly armed but flexible leader and two heavy gunners. Lots of points tied up in very few models, so let's see how that works out on the table.

Lucida - Host (Elusive 3+) [6pts]

Shotgun (R2x1)
Tactic - Polymorph: Permanently swap one of your leader’s Skills for any other.

Neutron - Engineer (Precise 4+) [7pts]
Grav Warper (R1x5. On a hit, move the target)

Reaper - Engineer (Precise 4+) [7pts]
Storm Cannon (R3x1. Shoot Twice if you do nothing else this turn)

EXILE BAND

Well since I made an elite warband from the faction with the cheapest options, let's see if I can make a more numerous list from the most highly priced faction. The Exiles had the weakest identity for a while, initially trying to cover all bases as a stand-in for multiple alien forces. Now they're more focused on the warrior-hunter angle. They feel more like they don't belong back in the more civilised parts of the galaxy they once called home. My personal canon is that they all have dramatic superhero/villain names too, just to further inflate egos.

So despite aiming for a larger warband, Exiles are all pretty expensive but come with some very nice perks. Looking at the Leaders I like the sound of the Mercy tactic that the Veteran gets, so we'll take a Veteran kitted out with a nice fusion gun to take down any tough targets.

Now we know that we want numbers, so let's take two Hounds to pad things out. I've kept the unit names vague so that you've got maximum flexibility to interpret them to suit your models. When I wrote the Hounds I was picturing literal alien dogs, but it also works for any sort of mindless swarm, so we'll use a couple of these clawed monstrosities.

6pts remaining means we can grab an Agent. I've been wanting to try out the Synergy Rifle, so let's get a Predator armed with one of them.

So we have our Exile Band.

The Faceless - Veteran (Grim 3+) [8pts]

Fusion Gun (R3x1, Targets resist at QL5+)
Tactic - Mercy: One of your units makes a free Shoot/Fight action against a Downed Enemy.

The Inevitable - Predator (Elusive, Precise 4+) [6pts]
Synergy Rifle (R2x1, x2 Damage if an Ally can also see the target)

The Starved - 2 Hounds (Nimble 5+) [6pts]
Claws (T2x1)

Keen followers of GRIMLITE will notice some models here have previously been used for other factions. Well that's the beauty of not caring at all about canon. One week you're a Splicer that's been mutated too far from humanity, the next you're an Exiled predator, the next you're an irredeemable Horror only good for trophies. We make efficient use of every mini here! 

Likewise you'll see that The Faceless has a Whip that isn't reflected in her profile, but as every character can make a standard Touch attack (T1x1) we'll just assume that it's mostly for show and no more effective than just putting the boot in.

Now the fun part, selecting the Horrors. We won't be using any fancy battlefields or twists for this, just keeping things simple for now. Looking over my limited miniature options I'm drawn to these beauties that I found in my parents basement and finally painted after 25 years. 

They get some nasty claws and soporific pheromones that make them dangerous to be near. Any resemblance to certain Fiends from that other game is purely coincidental.

As they're worth 2 Trophies each we need another 2 Trophies worth of Horrors. We'll take 2 Enforcers to fill our the Horror Roster. 

Now these are obviously inspired by those old Necromunda scenarios I previously wrote about, where Adeptus Arbites would rain fire down on the gangs as they fought each other. But Rules-As-Written in GRIMLITE all Horrors are considered allies to each other. So really we have two options when faced with a team-up of vigilante Enforcers and inhuman Fiends.

  • Apply narrative common-sense and say that they consider each other enemies.
  • Apply narrative creativity and invent a reason for them to be allied.
So of course we'll take the second. These particular enforcers have trained the clawed fiends to hunt down their prey, like demonic police-dogs. We'll even deploy them in pairs, one enforcer and one fiend. 






For this battlefield I've kept things vertically limited to make it easier to capture what's happening in the overhead photographs. All surfaces are assumed to be climbable and all buildings are open-topped.


So we're ready to go!

ROUND ONE

I'll write Round One in some detail to give a feel of the flow of play and then keep things to the highlights for later rounds.

Splicers win the roll-off and get to act first. With so many big-guns they'd normally scramble for high-ground but this is a much more maze-like battlefield, so things are a touch trickier. Reaper uses his Move to get just-about line of sight to both a Fiend and an Enforcer, but they'd definitely both benefit from cover. 


Regardless, he fires his Storm cannon at the Enforcer. His QL is 4+ but the Cover knocks that down to 5+, rolling 3 attacks from his 3x1 weapon. He uses his Precise skill to reroll misses, ending up with just a single one-damage hit on the Enforcer. The Enforcer rolls to resist against their QL5+ and fails, they're Down!

Rolling on the Shock table the Enforcer scores a 2: Staggered. They move in a random direction before going down. A great opportunity to break out my vintage Scatter Die. The Enforcer slumps down next to the wall, but still not in a great position to avoid further fire. 


With his one remaining action, Reaper tries to move into a better fire position for next turn. They roll a 6 for their Move roll, meaning they reach their destination safely. Reaper is marked as Exhausted and play passes to the Exiles.

The Inevitable considers moving to fire at the now-exposed Reaper, but we should really get an ally to have eyes on them first to make most of the Synergy Rifle's special ability. Let's get our brave Leader up to a vantage point.


Our first move takes Faceless up to the ladder, then she'll roll for her second move to the top of the ladder. A 6 means she makes it and now has a final action to use. 


Does she do the honourable thing and attack the Horrors that both warbands are hunting? Or does she eliminate the competition first? Let's start off with good intentions and fire at the Fiend with her Fusion Gun (3x1, target resist at QL5+). She rolls two hits for one damage each. The Fiend resists at 5+ rather than their actual QL4+ because of the Fusion Gun's special rule. They resist one, leaving one wound remaining. They're Down.

The Shock roll is a 4: Last Gasp. With no ranged weapons unfortunately the Fiend won't get a chance to use that free retaliation against their attacker, and they go down as normal. 

The Faceless is now Exhausted and play passes back to the Splicers.

Moving back to this side of the table I'm afraid I can see a golden opportunity to mess with the Exiles, so let the cease-fire end here.



Neutron hops up onto an air-con unit allowing him to get a distant but clear shot on Faceless on her exposed high-ground. He unleashes the Grav Warper (R1x5. On a hit, move the target), scoring a hit. 

Before the Damage is resolved we get the chance to Move the target, so naturally we'll pull her down into the room with the Enforcer and Fiend. She'll suffer d6 damage from the fall (3) before we even get to the weapon damage. She manages to resist all of the fall damage, but only Resists 4 of the Grav Warper's damage, taking her Down. Not great, but could have been much worse.

She rolls her Shock, scoring a 4: Last Gasp. Would have been great to return fire but she's now been pulled out of sight of Neutron, so he cackles safely in the distance.


Getting quite cramped in that little room.

Neutron has one action left to tries to run towards the other main building. He succeeds and gets there safely. Back to the Exiles.

Well that scuppered my plan for the Synergy Rifle, but at least everybody is still alive. Let's try and get some help over to Faceless to help out when she Recovers. A Hound moves over to the barricade with their first Move, then succeeds on their second move to get near to their brave leader. They don't want to get too close to the Fiend, so they'll end their turn there.


Back to the Splicers for their final turn this Round.

Lucida is keeping her eyes on the prize. Killing your opponents is all good fun, but we're here for Trophies. She sprints up the left flank of the battlefield and fires her shotgun off at the remaining Enforcer. Both attacker hit, but the Enforcer Resists both. She ducks back into cover to avoid retaliation 


Back to the Exiles who have two units remaining. As the Splicers are all exhausted they'll get to act one after the other. There might be a chance to show some teamwork yet.

First the remaining Hound sprints up the allyeway, using their Nimble skill to get in charging-range of Reaper next turn, but also making themselves into a very easy target.


But... we have a plan! The Inevitable moves up to the stairway and hopes they can make their second move to get to the top. They make it, giving themselves a clear shot on Reaper AND as an Ally has eyes on the target the Synergy Rifle will do double damage (now 2x2).


Naturally, both rolls miss, but using the Precise skill we can reroll both. More bad rolling, but they score one hit at least, causing 2 Damage to Reaper. They roll to Resist, succeeding on both. A good plan, but the dice were against us here. 

With all of the units now exhausted we move to the Horrors.

Our downed Enforcer successfully recovers, scoring Focused (Shoot at QL2+ this turn) on their Trauma roll! Not good news for Faceless, who's the nearest target. He unloads his Flash Gun, scoring three hits for one damage each. Luckily she resists all three.

Now the downed Fiend also Recovers, but rolls 1 on their Trauma roll, Shaken (act at QL6+ this turn). Things are still looking bad for Faceless, as she's the nearest target again. Only one Tearing Claw (T2x2, x2 Damage on a 6) hits, but rolls a 6 for double damage, giving a total of 4 damage. She Resists all but one point of Damage, but as she's already Down that's enough to take her out of the battle. She's placed off-board as a casualty. With their final action the Fiend moves into contact with the Hound that came to rescue Faceless. Not going so well. 

On the other side of the board the Fiend can't see any targets, so moves randomly. It slithers out of the doorway and now has eyes on Lucida. It uses its second Move to make contact with her, and uses its final action to Fight. Just the one hit, but it's a 6 for double damage. Lucida fails to Resist two of the damage, so she's also taken out of the fight! Both sides have now lost their Leaders. With its final action the Fiend moves into contact with Neutron.

The Enforcer moves out of the other doorway, flanking Neutron and making his shot. Despite their Precise skill only one hit is scored, which Neutron Resists.

Oof. The Horrors are really living up to their name in this game.

ROUND 2


So both sides have lost their Leaders, and the Horrors are on a total rampage. Might be time to refocus on the main objective here rather than fighting each other. For now, at least.

We'll zoom out here to for the sake of brevity.

Splicers win the roll for first-turn. Reaper has an obscured shot on the Fiend that's now attacking Neutron, so he uses his Storm Cannon's ability to fire twice if he does nothing else this turn. First volley kills the Fiend dead! He uses the second volley to target the Enforcer, who's in cover but still eats two hits and fails to resist both. Double-kill from Reaper! Shows how quickly things can turn around in this game.

Exiles face another choice. With two Horrors down is it time to start eliminating the competition? Certainly it seems like Neutron is in too good a position where he is, surrounded by trophies. Inevitable runs down the flank but not quick enough to get a shot off this turn. 

Splicers have Neutron gather up some Trophies and duck into cover. He's in a good position to be able to withdraw safely later on. 

Exiles have a Hound in contact with a Fiend, so are able to Fight twice, killing the Fiend against the odds! Finally, a tactical retreat into cover before the Enforcer gets a chance to avenge his fallen pet. The second hound sweeps behind Reaper and unleashes more claws. The first attack takes Reaper down, staggering him back and preventing a follow-up attack. 

Horrors are reduced to a lone Enforcer now. They duck out of the building and line up a shot against one of the Hounds, taking them out in a single Flashgun blast. 

ROUND 3


Exiles win the roll off. The remaining Hound runs to collect the Trophies from the dead Fiend, also getting eyes on the remaining Enforcer.

Splicers have Reaper recover, staggering to his feet. His Trauma roll is Injured, so he will go Down at the end of this turn. He takes a precautionary shot against the Inevitable, scoring a single hit that's easily resisted, before ducking into cover and hitting the ground. 

Exiles have Inevitable use their Synergy Rifle, with the Hound acting as spotter. Just one hit on the Enforcer but it's enough to take them out of the fight. With their remaining action the Inevitable moves over to the Trophy, close but not able to pick it up yet.

Splicers have Neutron pick up the final Trophy and move to the edge of the board.

Horrors are all dead, so no action there.

The Splicers declare that they are Withdrawing from battle. Neutron is removed safely, as he's already on the edge of the board, taking three trophies with him. Nobody else is touching the table edge, so they all get one final Round to act before the battle ends.

ROUND 4


So this is really about the Exiles trying to secure the remaining Trophies without the Splicers interfering. Of course it never hurts to get a parting shot in on your rivals, as it might weaken their numbers for the next time you clash.

Exiles win the roll off. Inevitable grabs a trophy and moves into cover with the remaining Hound. Taking a shot at Reaper just isn't worth it here, as he'd be able to return fire with the full force of his Storm Cannon.

Splicers roll for Reaper to recover and fail. He stays face down in the dirt as the battle ends.

AFTERMATH

So both sides managed to secure three trophies, but took casualties. Let's deal with the bad news first.

CASUALTIES

Splicers took one casualty, but it was their leader Lucida. They roll on the casualty table and score a 4: MIA. Next time they fight the Exiles will get to deploy Lucida right in the heart of danger. Ouch.

Exiles lost their Leader and a Hound. The Hound rolls 6: Experience. They gain the Elusive skill which should help to keep them alive next time. Meanwhile, Lucida rolls a 2: Critical, she needs to pass a roll or else die permanently. Luckily she rolls a 6 and lives to fight again. 

TRADING

Now for the good stuff! Two trophies can be traded in for a d66 roll on the Trading table. Each side has enough to roll once, banking the spare Trophy for next time.

Splicers roll 25. They can recruit an Agent from another faction with 2pts of gear to fight with them for the next battle only. They could certainly use the numbers and a melee option, so they take a Welder Errant (4+) with an Electro Blade and Shield. Sounds like he's coming along for the next mission to rescue Lucida. 

 
Exiles roll a 16. On the next battle they can place a Bounty on one of their enemies, meaning they'll drop 3 Trophies when killed. The obvious thing is to put it on Lucida, but that feels a little too straightforward with her MIA result. Instead they'll put that Bounty on Reaper, as he was a little scary to face in this battle, so taking him out would be a nice goal.


THOUGHTS

Very happy with how this report went. The last time I played the Horrors were a touch flimsy, but here they struck a nice balance. They were still manageable to take out once the Warbands focused fire (with some lucky rolls) but on their own turns they were truly terrifying to deal with. 

Losing both Leaders so early meant I wasn't able to test the Tactics, but other than that it felt like I was able to cover a bit of everything. I still constantly forget to roll Trauma when a unit recovers. Feels like I'm so excited to get the unit back into action that I never remember to make the roll, even though it's often beneficial to the unit. Not sure how to hammer that into my brain.

Enjoying the long-term potential of these games, as the casualty and trading rolls really left some hooks in place for a follow up battle. The Splicers have a temporary recruit and a mission to rescue their Leader, and the Exiles have a bounty to claim on a dangerous opponent. Not to mention the prospect of facing a new batch of Horrors.

I hope that gives you an insight into how the game actually plays. As you can see it runs fast and somewhat swingy, which works for my narrative tastes but certainly throws in some unexpected results. Come to it prepared to be surprised.

Friday, 7 August 2020

GRIMLITE - Horrors of Husk 28

GRIMLITE now has a living document. Expect regular changes in there, so apologies to anybody that's actually trying to run a campaign with this thing.

My goal was to make a game let you spend almost no time thinking about the rules, instead being able to focus on what I affectionately call narrative bullshit. The wild things that happen in miniature wargames that stick in your memory.

Basically everything that goes against the idea of a chess-like pitched battle between two carefully balanced sides. I wanted to make sure that intent was clear from the start, so the default scenario needed to be something that exemplified that.

Coincidentally I've been revisiting Frostgrave this week, having mostly ignored it in the past. I'm surprised at how much philosophy it shares with GRIMLITE with its swingy combat and high-impact magic system. In particular I like the focus on gathering treasure, rather than trying to wipe out the opposing side (somewhat OSR in that respect) and the inclusion of a system for neutral monsters roaming the battlefield.

This took me back to my experience with Necromunda, and what I was trying to recapture with GRIMLITE. The games that I remember even after a 20 year hiatus are:

  • Running a Purge where three of us all had gangs taking on hordes of whatever hive-monsters we had minis for. 
  • A clash between two gangs that was interrupted by a squad of Arbites that would fire indiscriminately, but if you killed one you could potentially loot their high-end gear.
  • Something involving frozen Chaos Warriors? I mainly remember them waking up and slaughtering a few gangers before the rest fled.
I can see why Frostgrave went in this direction. This is potent stuff.

I've also been working on the implied setting for GRIMLITE, a world I'm calling Husk 28. A forgotten moon of a broken planet. I liked the idea of a world that had been abandoned by the typical sci-fi corporation or empire, focusing on what happens to those left behind. The Husk, if you like. An exaggerated Dark Ages feel rather than anything too explosive. More post-abandonment than post-apocalypse.

So the idea of Horrors emerged from these thoughts. Neutral creatures that would roam the battlefield and protect the loot the Warbands were trying to seize. These were the things that the caretakers of the planet had previously protected its residents against, but they're gone now. 

This evolved into the idea of Trophies, so the Horrors are the loot. The scarier the Horror the bigger the potential reward for taking them down, provided the other side doesn't steal the spoils. 

Anybody that's played Frostgrave will see similarities here. It's like grabbing the Treasure system in one hand, the Creatures system in the other and smashing them into one blob. Now, go fight the blob and hope it doesn't eat you. 

This new focus on Horrors allowed me break up the more traditional Scenario structure I previously had in there. Now there are loose ideas for Battlefields and Twists that you can apply to have a battle with a more non-standard structure. Ambitious players can pull options from three different systems to create a unique combination each time. So you might have:

The Hells-Gate Compound
Horrors: 1 Devourer, 1 Hellion
Battlefield: Complex - A single sprawling complex of corridors and rooms.
Secure doors can be opened or closed with an action.
Twist: Relic - Both sides are hunting down a powerful weapon that can be used in battle and worth extra Trophies at the end of the game.

Which would feel quite different to:

Terrors in the Dark
Horrors: 1 Arachnid, 4 Vermin
Battlefield: The Shadow - An area of Husk permanently shadowed by the
broken planet.The Horrors here know how to use
the dark, and all attacks against them are at QL6+.
Twist: Mercs - A third Warband is on the board, with control passing back and forth between the players as the tide turns.

But even a relatively simple battle with a few horrors and a basic battlefield should still generate memorable drama. 

As with the RPGs I write, I don't want to create a canonical library of content here. I want players to feel empowered to design their own horrors and battlefields. For now I'm hoping I can do this through show don't tell but I suspect some more prescriptive guidance will appear in the doc later. So for now a look into how I've designed the content that's in there.

Break the Rules

Warbands all operate under pretty simple rules, so the Horrors can afford to be downright broken. I have the Colossus that basically ignores any low-powered weapons and the Witch who can mind-control Warband members. There's no way I'd put these abilities into Warbands themselves, but here it creates a puzzle for the players to solve and is sure to create memorable moments.

Hinder, Don't Invalidate

The key to keeping things interesting is to make them difficult but not impossible. If a battlefield makes Shooting impossible then it's probably going to feel like it's just punishing one warband more than the other, and there aren't many interesting ways to tackle it. However, in the Shadow battlefield all attacks are hindered, which means everybody is in the same terrible boat. 

Be Horrific

Remember these are Horrors. They should scare the players. If they're too soft then the game turns into a Piñata where players take turns showering the ground with trophies before scrabbling over the sweets within. Keep things scary and desperate.

Tuesday, 4 August 2020

A Setting to Serve the Game

At some point I suspect we've all sat down to read an RPG and gone through the following process:
  • This setting looks neat, I'd love to run a game in it.
  • Okay, there's quite a lot of setting here, time to dig deeper.
  • Right, that's all cool, but I have no idea how I'd actually run a game in there.
This is something I try to avoid whenever I'm working on a setting for a game. I've spoken about it before as the idea that Setting should Serve the Game.

Basically, the game is more important than the setting, so if something needs to change it should be the setting. This isn't some universal dogma, just how I like things to be with games I'm playing. I believe that the world comes to life at the game table, not on the GMs desk.

So from the very start Into the Odd did this. The game existed before the setting, so I knew that I needed a world where:
  • Adventurers could go out and look for treasure as independent groups.
  • Weird obstacles could guard the treasure.
  • Some treasure would have weird powers.
With Into the Odd we got a world with a single city that's barely held under any sort of authority, a perilous underground that doesn't follow the rules and a wilderness that doesn't make sense, and the implication that Arcana are discarded alien devices. A world born out of the game's adventurous requirements.

Electric Bastionland expanded on this with the Debtholders, Failed Careers and Machines all being new elements that both flavour the setting but were ultimately born from game requirements.

As with all my advice, this all sounds very absolute. Am I saying that your game setting should have NOTHING that doesn't directly relate to the game? Well sure, if it works, but I don't begrudge people that like a bit of side-salad on their plate. If it gets the reader inspired then it's good by me, but too much side-salad and I suddenly realise I can't see the pasta anymore.

This is particularly relevant as I hash out a loose setting for GRIMLITE, a world I'm tentatively naming Husk28, a forgotten moon of a broken planet. Tinkering around with it got me thinking about one of the most successful tabletop RPG settings of all time.

WARHAMMER 40,000

Something about this setting just works. It got its flesh-hooks into me when I was 10 years old and despite walking away multiple times something keeps dragging me back. Sure, miniatures are appealing, and there's some incredible artwork that brings the setting to life, but I think it's worth dissecting the setting to see why it works. Does it support my theory that the best settings serve the game, or does it cry Heresy at my false sermon?

This is cheating a bit, as this is clearly a setting primarily written for miniature wargaming, rather than RPGs, but the same principles apply. Many jokes have been made about the tagline "In the Grim Darkness of the Far Future there is Only War" but it really spotlights that this is a world that exists for the benefit of your table. 




I'll take any excuse to talk about the two original Realms of Chaos books. These were giant, messy volumes filled with Chaos stuff. The core of it really was a procedure for creating a Champion in the service of one of the four Chaos Gods. You'd also get some random followers ranging from humble Skaven and Orcs to Sorcerers, Manticores, and Giant Snails. It definitely had that early-GW feel of "let's make a game where we can use all our weird miniatures at once", yet the setting makes it work. You aren't just a grab-bag of unrelated miniatures, you're a warped and disparate warband following a twisted god of corruption. Why is your Knightly Champion being followed by a Giang Frog and a Minotaur? Chaos! That's why!

Of course the random element sort of spits in the face of this idea. If I roll a Treeman as my latest follower I guess I'd better go and buy the miniature or get creative with some twigs. I suspect many players would fudge the randomness slightly to make their own miniatures fit here, but the kitbasher in me sort of likes the challenge of going full-random.

So the Realms of Chaos work as a setting for narrative wargames. There's a reason for your warband to exist the way it does, and there's a reason why you're always fighting everybody all the time on bizarre battlefields. I'm cheating here, because while these books do serve 40k they feel primarily written with an eye on Warhammer Fantasy Battles.

Warhammer 40k has Chaos, sure, but amongst other elements it also has the Imperium. This is both its biggest asset and flaw.

Chaos works because you've got four factions with a very strong identity and clear reasons to oppose each other, but plenty of room for variety within them. A Khorne warband made up of Dark Elves and elite Chaos Warriors is going to feel very different to one made up of a horde of Beastmen and Snotlings. Yeah, you can get Khornate Snotlings in Realms of Chaos. 


At first the Imperium looks like it has all the same hallmarks. It's big and incomprehensible. It's fractured into the Mechanicus, Militarum, Inquisition, Arbites, Astartes and the faux-latin list could go on all day. Even these fractures have sub-fractures, most classically in Space Marine Chapters that breaks the Astartes down into handily colour-coded factions each with their own gimmick and agenda.

But it's not quite the same. At a glance you'd think this perfectly serves a game where you need to be able to explain any two players fighting a pitched battle against each other. 

Ultramarines vs Tyranids? Great. Rematch of the century. 

Ultramarines vs Mechanicus? Sure, I guess. Their agendas could clash in a way that sparks a battle.

Ultramarines vs Imperial Fists? Erm. I guess one of these Chapters is sheltering an enemy of the Imperium? Maybe Tzeentch has tricked one of us into attacking the other. No, not my side, your side.

Ultramarines vs Ultramarines? Suppose one of us has to be the Alpha Legion in disguise? Wait, we both have Roboute Guilliman soooo....

It gets worse with some of the other factions. Eldar are an ancient, dying race where every life is precious. So why are they mowing themselves down again?

I mean it's not going to stop two players fighting each other, but it lessens the narrative appeal. You can make it work if you're creative, but it doesn't have that masterful directness of Realms of Chaos. Anything goes over there, so two followers of Slaanesh could easily be pitched against each other just as easily as they'd go and raid the civilised lands. 

I wrote WARPHAMMER 99k as a joke, but it sort of demonstrates a very clumsy approach to making the 40k setting better serve the game. It catapults the 40k universe back into the Realms of Chaos, but it  loses a lot in the process. Personally I feel like it's an issue of scale. 40k wants to be this epic thing. Wars of millions are fought every day above hive planet with billions of people, all but a speck compared to the trillions of Daemons that pour into the galaxy from the Eye of Terror, yet all this is nothing compared to...

And so on.

But the fact is, most people are going to engage with the setting through battles between armies measured in dozens rather than even hundreds, maybe even less than that if they're playing Kill Team. Sure, the individual life is meaningless in this cruel galaxy, but I also spent hours painting this little Exarch and I think she's actually pretty cool. 

So I like that the Imperium is unfathomably massive and stagnant, but what's lost if we apply a thunder hammer to it until the cracks are a bit clearer.

Completely fracture the Astartes. At least enough that it's easy to explain why your Salamanders are fighting my Blood Angels every week.

This is a lot easier if you remove the idea that the marines are the heroes of the story. There's an entire rant on that topic stashed away inside me but I'll bury it down for another day.

Put more narrative focus on the individuals. Allow everybody to be a bit of a renegade. Allegiance is primarily to your army's leader, rather than the faction as a whole. Now there's more appeal in considering why two Wolf Lords would bring their Companies to war against each other. 

What's that? There's already an edition of Warhammer 40k that solves all of these issues?


Rogue Trader was weird. Sort of the 40k parallel to the Realms of Chaos books. Giant mess of creative ideas, blurring the line between wargame and RPG, with heavy focus on "let's use every weird mini we have". 

And the Rogue Traders themselves are essentially the Renegades I was describing above. They fly around deep space seeking money by whatever means. They have Imperial authority but can also basically do what they want. Hire an Eldar bodyguard? Sure. Get some Ork crew? Great. Blow up a rival Rogue Trader? Absolutely.

Most meaningfully, it's easy to imagine two rival Rogue Traders calling on support from different Marine chapters. Now that Salamanders vs Blood Angels battle is on.

Modern 40k is clearly having to walk a line between serving its tabletop games alongside a range of novels, video-games, and presumably the big-budget TV series and movies are only a matter of time away. 

If you're writing a setting to be used purely at the table then you've got the luxury of focus. Take a step back and look at the actual needs of your game. You'll thank me when you sit down with a bunch of new players and your world emerges through play rather than an exposition dump.

Wednesday, 29 July 2020

External Engagement in RPGs

Last week I wrote about how I found External Engagement was hindering my enjoyment of videogames.

Again this is just my own experience. Some enjoy it as a part of their game experience, and for others it's their main way of engaging with the hobby.

Now with Tabletop RPGs the divide between External/Internal Engagement isn't quite as simple.

At its most obvious it's the classic player/GM divide. The GM spends all week preparing for the game and the players roll up, play for a few hours, then go home and don't think about the game until next week.

But there's a lot of space between those two extremes, and some nuance in the way that people engage externally with the game.

Prepping Content: This lies closest to the actual playing of the game, whether it's a GM crafting a setting or a player planning out their character. 

Training: I guess this is a sort of prep, but instead of making content you're brushing up on your skills. That could be learning tips to running the game or reading up on how to be a better player in terms of tactical decisions or portraying an interesting character.

Spectating: Essays have been written about the growing appeal of actual play streams and podcasts. I don't really have much experience of them but fair to say it's a form of external engagement.

Discoursing: Talking about RPGs. Not necessarily to get ideas for content for your game, or even necessarily to understand the game itself, but almost for the enjoyment of the discussion. I describe this slightly pejoratively because I'm clearly a sucker for this myself, and I'm in an ongoing process of reviewing how much I actually enjoy it

Designing for External Engagement

Some games do this pretty clearly. Forgive the dated reference, but in the 3rd Edition days the official D&D "Character Optimisation" forum was pretty popular. This was a whole lot of people crunching away at the numbers to make powerful characters, completely away from the realities of at-table play. A fun process in its own right for some, I'm sure, but if you're not somebody that enjoys that side of things its very presence can affect how you view the game. Should I be like the people on that forum when I sit down to play 3e? Is this what the other players are expecting of me? Will they be mad if I just make a weird character that isn't super effective mechanically?

Games that are designed to support this sort of External Engagement might see the positives being reaped ("everybody is talking about our game!") without necessarily seeing theses hidden negatives. From the inside I've always felt like the barrier to entry for RPGs is super-low, but dig a bit deeper and it's easy to see how they might appear more daunting to a newcomer.

"Oh I always liked the look of the 40k RPGs but I don't want to have to learn a bunch of setting stuff"

"D&D looks cool but I don't want to have to buy a load of miniatures"

"I want to run Mothership but I heard on Twitter that it doesn't support campaign play, so probably not worth starting it"

So External Engagement is Bad, Right?

No! Again, this is about working out what your own preferences are. 

The activities listed above can all be enjoyable, and I enjoy them myself, but I feel like going too deep into them hinders my enjoyment of the actual game when I sit down to play. 

Will it be the same for you? Depends entirely on the person, but I think it's interesting to consider whether these engagements are laying too much pressure on your weekly game, or setting unrealistic expectations. 

We all remember that session where we were excited all week, spent a tonne of time doing prep, and then it was a big flop. On the other side sometimes those unplanned games turn out to be the most enjoyable for me, where you have nothing planned and have to run on pure improvisation.

Everybody has seen that person posting a hot take on twitter presenting a purely theoretical argument or describing a bizarre situation completely alien to your experience at the table. Sometimes you sit back and think "has this person actually played this game or do they just talk about it online?"

Do you ever feel like you're that person? Might be worth considering whether External Engagement is improving or hindering your enjoyment of the hobby.

Designing for Internal Engagement

So you'd expect Electric Bastionland to be designed purely for Internal Engagement, right? Well, no, because this is only really a recent concept for me. Even if I were to re-write the game today I don't think it's useful to see this as such a clear dichotomy.

There are loads of ways you can engage externally with EB. There's regular discourse on how best to run the game, and the Oddendum is basically a huge chapter where I engage in that discussion. There are procedures for creating maps and stocking your locations, both of which you'd usually sit down to do between your games. I even made an Actual Play video so that people can watch before they play.

But it's missing some of the key points of External Engagement.

Character optimisation? Don't make me laugh. Roll up a character and see what you get.

Sure, there are a bunch of procedures in the book for prep, but you're encouraged to leave lots open to discovery at the table. I try to lead by example here, where the entire setting of Bastionland is only really presented through the lens of an RPG. There's no delusion that this world deserves a nine-book fiction saga, this is a world built for the table.

There's certainly no giant wiki of setting to digest. You only get to discover Bastionland by playing it.

But like I said before, this isn't about purity of design. It's about... wait... what is it about again?

What's the Point of All This?

As I said at the start of this post, this whole process has been a bit of self-reflection, and I'm sure there are people that feel similar to me. My hope is that somebody might read this and consider whether they're enjoying tabletop RPGs as much as they possibly can, and whether there's another way for them.

It's extra rough if you don't have a group to play with in-person, a situation a lot of us are in at the moment. I spent years in this wilderness before online-play became so straightforward and local groups more commonplace, so I sympathise with those who feel like they only have External Engagement to enjoy, but I'd encourage them to look at all options to get themselves involved in the actual playing of the game.

And maybe think about stepping away from RPG twitter for a week. Limit yourself to an hour of prep for your game and accept that you're going to be filling in blanks on the night. Rather than listening to actual plays, dive into a history podcast or audiobook that might give you some cool ideas to draw on.

Don't deny yourself the type of fun that comes with that low-pressure, no-expectation game.