The third act of Andy Slack's gaming blog

Lessons from 2018

2018 has been a very instructive year on the gaming front, and this year you’ve already seen several lessons learned…

But wait, there’s more…

  • I’ve realised that I don’t actually need any figures at all… I run face to face games in other peoples’ houses using their figures or none at all; VTT games use tokens; and solitaire games which need figures can also be run on VTT. A small emergency stash of paper minis is more than adequate.
  • I love Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan’s work and have now tried to run four of his campaigns in succession; Eyes of the Stone Thief, Heart of the Fury, the Pirates of Drinax and the Dracula Dossier. All of them have fizzled out after a few sessions at most. So while I will still read his output and be inspired by it, I will stop trying to run it; there’s something about the interaction between his campaigns and my groups that stops them working for us, which is a great pity.
  • Everything is quiet on the gaming front at the moment, but one thing I’ve learned from blogging is that happens every year at about this time; so I’ll kick back, enjoy seeing the family for a while, and see what January brings.

So much for 2018. Have a merry Christmas and a happy New Year, and I’ll see you on the other side, if spared.

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“I care not what puppet is placed upon the throne of England to rule the Empire on which the sun never sets. The man who controls Britain’s money supply controls the British Empire, and I control the British money supply.” – Nathan Rothschild

The Conspyramid

While preparing for the recently-abandoned Dracula Dossier campaign, I built a conspyramid using the Dracula Deck, and realised I could use that technique  for other campaigns too.

Perhaps I should translate that. Here’s a picture of the example conspyramid from Night’s Black Agents…

This is a very clever GM tool; you can think of it as a flowchart, or a dungeon map of the opposing forces. Players start unravelling the conspiracy by finding one node, typically one on the bottom row. They find clues alerting them to communication channels between the nodes (represented by the lines connecting them), and follow those to find and investigate other nodes. Eventually they reach the core leadership of the conspiracy, and either they or the Big Bad Evil Guy(s) die horribly.

The Dracula Deck is an optional accessory for the NBA campaign The Dracula Dossier; a custom card deck with one node on each card – you deal them into the conspyramid more or less at random to build your conspiracy. There’s no guidance on how to connect them, but I found that placing cards on nodes immediately suggested links – person X would logically talk to organisation Y, for example.

If you’re not playing NBA, you can use random encounters from whatever game you’re playing instead. In Traveller, nodes could be patrons, cargoes and whatnot. In D&D, they could be monsters – you could use the hierarchical level as the relevant monster table, with level 1 encounters on the bottom row and level 6 ones on the top.

In the real world, conspiracies are abandoning this sort of hierarchical structure in favour of cellphone-coordinated flashmobs and independent cells connected only by a shared ideology, which is much harder to deal with – there is no head to cut off the snake. In the Dracula Dossier, I can explain the hierarchy by saying the Count is at heart a 14th Century warlord who is not down wit’ da kids, and in other games you can say that interstellar travel times or low-tech societies encourage the conspiracy to use such a structure.

The Vampyramid

The other clever GM tool that goes with the conspyramid is the vampyramid; while the former gives structure to the conspiracy itself, the latter defines how the conspiracy will respond if the PCs poke it with a stick; here’s an example…

So for example if the PCs cause trouble for a level 1 conspiracy node, it might respond with one of the options on level 1 (“Reflex”) of the vampyramid; bribing the PCs, framing them for a crime, shadowing them, or probing their defences with a low-level attack. At this stage, the conspiracy doesn’t take them seriously so the higher levels are unlikely to be aware of them; the local goons are acting by reflex without orders from above. Messing with higher level nodes “unlocks” the equivalent level of responses, which grow rapidly better planned and more deadly.

As a group, my players don’t want to play the Dracula Dossier campaign, but both the Conspyramid and the Vampyramid go into my GM toolbox for future use. I recommend them to the house.

We’re starting to see previews of the new Savage Worlds Adventure Edition – Quick Encounters here and revised chase rules as part of the Return to Sleepy Hollow adventure.

Chase rules are obviously problematic in Savage Worlds as they have changed more often than anything else in the game that I am aware of; I think they are currently on their fourth (maybe fifth) incarnation, so I’m backing away slowly without making eye contact. We’ll see what they’re like in the final cut.

Quick Encounters made my ears prick up though; they extend the earlier Quick Combat freebie – if you think of your Savage Worlds session as an action-adventure movie, Quick Encounters are the montages. They attract my attention because I have long wanted a viable set of solitaire rules for Savage Worlds, and Quick Encounters come very close to being that – they remind me of The Plan in Solo, which I’ve used extensively this year for solitaire play.

Both approaches compress a lengthy scene into a couple of dice rolls and some narrative.

When using The Plan, you roll 2d6 and apply modifiers if the group has skills or gear that will be a significant help or hindrance, with the result determining success or failure, and then roll 2d6 again for the outcome, which can be good or bad regardless of whether you succeeded.

When using Quick Encounters, each party member makes a suitable skill roll, with the GM assigning modifiers depending on circumstances. As the consequences for an individual depend on his or her dice rolls, it is possible for the team to succeed as a whole while one or more members suffer injuries or setbacks.

Both approaches allow the group to succeed but at a cost; The Plan also allows them to fail but in a lucky way, which I don’t think Quick Encounters supports. It would be easy enough to add; maybe if the team fails but an individual succeeds with a raise they could get a benefit relating to that skill. The Savage Worlds version requires a roll for each participating team member, while Solo looks at the team as a whole.

As well as solitaire play, I can see a lot of other uses for Quick Encounters. They might serve me better for dogfights, dramatic tasks and social conflict than the rules intended for those situations, which I generally resolve by narrative roleplaying and a couple of quick dice rolls anyway – exactly what QE is intended for.

Further, the hobby seems to be shifting towards dungeon crawls which are a series of set-piece encounters separated by vaguely-defined montages of minor rooms and corridors; but, the resource management aspects of dungeon crawling require some sort of “hit point tax” for traversing the empty bits. Enter Quick Encounters… “OK, after leaving the Temple of the Serpent God you track the escaping saurian priests through a maze of caverns for several hours before finding their lair, let’s use an encounter card and a Quick Encounter to see what happens on the way.”

Quick Encounters are a good addition to the rules, and are definitely going to see use at my table.

For some time now I’ve been trying to persuade my usual face to face group to try the Dracula Dossier campaign for Night’s Black Agents, but run under Savage Worlds; and the weekend before last they agreed to try it out.

I ran one of the Edom Files scenarios, Four Days of the Bat, which is a mission to find and extract a woman called Emily Grant from Berlin during the late Cold War, and I thought it went well; there were some very cinematic moments…

The best was probably the fantastic piece of driving where Muller (muscle and wheel artist) drifted a purloined taxi sideways across Ruhwald Park as the bad guys made their move on Grant, threw the door open, and hit Grant in the back of the legs with the door sill, causing her to collapse neatly into the passenger seat before he roared off with Nicolae (asset handler and face) diving through the rear passenger window while Parton (investigator) and Henley (SAS bang and burner) shot the tyres out on the van full of Romanian thugs trying to grab the girl.

A close second was the fight in the back of the same taxi when a vampire spawn hurled herself through the rear window to get at the girl – Muller firing a Glock into the back seat one-handed over his shoulder while accelerating down the Autobahn towards Templehof airport with Nicolae (asset handler) diving out of the passenger door to avoid the spawn just as Varoutte (black bagger) rode past on a stolen motorcycle, scooping him up on the pillion before he hit the concrete.

However, the feedback from the players showed only one definitely interested in a Dracula Dossier campaign, a couple lukewarm towards the idea, and three strongly against. Not the level of enthusiasm I was hoping for; what the bulk of the group wants to play is mediaeval fantasy, not gritty modern horror.

That’s real shame, but the point is to have fun, and clearly most of the group would have more fun playing something different. Someday, maybe, with another group?

Big Battles

“The big one is mine!” – Alihulk the Fighter’s response to seeing a group of 50+ lizardmen charging the party

This one’s for SJB, who asked for a post on the big Savage Worlds battle of 20-30 characters per side…

Previously, on Halfway Station…

I’ve actually done three battles that were relevant, and checking my notes, all of those were in the Shadows of Keron campaign for Beasts & Barbarians, on the previous blog:

  • Death of a Tyrant, Part 2, featured a group of 8 PCs (including the above-mentioned Alihulk) with a couple of supporting NPCs against over 50 lizardmen.
  • A Prince’s Life is the one I always think of, as it involved three Amazon Hawk Ships with catapults, one of which had six PCs with 15-20 NPC allies, and the other two of which had about 20 river pirates each.
  • The Enemy Revealed had a half-a-dozen PCs, two platoon-sized Valk forces, and a group of enraged war ponies. It was quite hard to tell who was on which side.

Rereading those posts, I see that I didn’t go into any detail at all about how those combats actually worked, though; let’s see if I can do better this time.

Under the Hood

Pinnacle have a party piece they do at conventions which is a big battle with lots of troops and vehicles, but I didn’t find any actual play reports or videos of them doing it. They quite likely have better techniques than I; but this is how I approach the topic…

The limiting factors are the players’ OODA loops and how many dice you have. For the former, however experienced your group is, you can’t get the time per combat round much below two minutes per player, as it takes them that long to Observe what’s going on, Orient themselves, Decide what to do and Act on that decision; after a while, the implementation of their decision, say by rolling dice and moving minis, only takes a few seconds. Most fights finish within a few combat rounds; to finish a combat within an hour you need each round to be no more than 10 minutes, and therefore your group size needs to be no more than 4-5 players.

The issue then becomes how to maintain that pace.

First, the players should control all the NPCs on their side, even if the characters don’t. Give them a couple of NPCs each to run as well as their PC; now you’re up to 12-15 on their side, and my usual rule of thumb is to face the PCs with 2:1 odds and a Wild Card boss or two, so say 25-30 opponents.

Second, the basic mooks on each side should be simple and identical as far as possible, and operate in fair-sized groups – I normally have no more than two groups and give them all a d6 in relevant traits and identical equipment. You can run them from a statblock, but trust me, rolling 1d6 for everything is all you need. That means you can roll a fistful of dice simultaneously – “OK these eight pirates here are shooting their bows at Nessime…” (The Shadows of Keron crew all played either Shadowrun or Warhammer 40,000, so there was no shortage of d6 at that table.) Savage Worlds mooks have no hit points, so you don’t have to track those, which is a huge help; they are “up, down, or off the table”, i.e. able to act, shaken and not able to act, or wounded (incapacitated or dead, sort out which after the fight’s over).

Third, Wild Card NPCs slow things down, so use them sparingly. My Big Bad Evil Guys know full well that they can be one-shot killed by a lucky PC – it happened a couple of times, and word soon gets around in the BBEG community – so they tend to hide at the back and send in another wave of expendable minions rather than getting stuck in personally. This also reinforces the players’ perceptions of them as callous, evil and cowardly, which is no bad thing.

Fourth, PCs have cunning plans and area effect attacks which they use to whittle down the enemy hordes. Against the river pirates, they used flaming catapult ammunition and the blast power to great effect. In the battle against the lizardmen, they used a flying wedge to take out the enemy commander, then retreated to a stone tower so the enemy could only attack piecemeal through narrow kill zones. (Admittedly they then fell to arguing amongst themselves and neglected to keep watch, so the lizardmen gained entry unopposed and it got very messy, but the original plan was sound.) In the Valk skirmish, they used magic to gain control of a herd of war ponies and stampede them into the fight between the opposing Valk tribes, before indiscriminately hosing down the battlefield with more magic from behind cover on high ground (the wizard hated all Valk, and didn’t care whether he killed friend or foe). The mere sight of several dozen enemy figures approaching prompts tactical creativity.

Fifth, don’t forget morale. Most enemies will break off if they’re taking serious casualties; in the real world, it’s not clear what proportion of casualties will cause a unit to flee or surrender, but I usually give them a group Spirit roll at 25% losses and again at 50%, the second time at -2. Failure represents the point when they decide the BBEG is not paying them enough for this, and they retreat or rout depending on their competence.

You’ll notice my focus on figures. If I’m going to do a big battle using the combat rules, I want the spectacle of figures and terrain – if I”m running the battle in the abstract, or on VTT, I tend to use either the Quick Combat or the Mass Battle rules.

You’ll also note that all these examples are from a fantasy campaign; you don’t really get battles that big in modern or science fiction games, you’re more likely to have a squad-level skirmish. According to my increasingly dog-eared copy of James F Dunnigan’s How to Make War, squads are 9-15 people, depending on tactical doctrine and how many you can fit in an APC, advance on a 50-100 yard front, and defend an area a couple of hundred yards across; so a realistic number of modern figures on a regulation 6′ x 4′ wargaming table (call it 150 x 100 scale yards) is a squad attacking a fire team, maybe 15-20 figures all told, regardless of what Games Workshop would like to sell you. But I digress.

Coda

Try a big battle in your Savage Worlds game. They’re not hard, and they create some epic memories for the group.

Alihulk’s stand against the lizardman platoon was over five years ago at the time of writing, and the members of that group still talk about it…

“Literal translations of game mechanics from other systems usually just result in cumbersome sub-systems that don’t add one minute of fun to the Savage version.” – Savage Worlds Deluxe

Having decided to drop Mongoose Traveller 2 and restructure my campaigns, I need to convert the standard Traveller races for use in Savage Worlds. The ones likely to be encountered “behind the claw” are aslan, solomani, vargr, vilani and zhodani, and fortunately those are the ones that are most human-like and therefore need the least conversion. (One of the good things about Traveller is the steady ramp up from familiar races to weird ones, from ordinary humans to hivers, so you can choose what level of strangeness to role-play.)

I reached for the rulebooks intending to do a detailed line-by-line check leading to a huge, complex set of racial templates; but then I thought no, that is not the Savage Worlds way. I’ve been playing Traveller for over 40 years and Savage Worlds for over 10, what are the key themes that define those races?

Humans are easy. Solomani, Vilani and Zhodani are plain vanilla humans, no changes needed apart from noting that Zhodani nobles and intendants use their free Edge for being human to buy Arcane Background (Psionics).

Vargr are the most human-like of the races. If I reach back to my Classic Traveller definitions, the only thing that stands out is they can bite in melee. So instead of a free Edge, Vargr start with Natural Weapon (Bite), and because that doesn’t use up all their racial points, I’ll give them Keen Sense of Smell as well because dogs – I’m not going to bother with odd pluses or minuses to attributes.

Aslan are basically samurai in lion suits to me. They’re big, they’ve got claws, and they have a code of honour; so that’s Brawny, Natural Weapon (Claws) and Code of Honour; that doesn’t quite balance, so they get Low Light Vision as well for being cats, and we’re done here. Same comments about attribute modifiers as for Vargr.

Job done, in less time than it took me to type up. Close enough for the kind of fast, furious and fun games I favour. To be reviewed when Savage Worlds Adventure Edition is published.

The story goes that Warren Buffet, billionaire investor, gave his personal pilot some advice: Make a list of your top 25 goals, and circle the top five. Where this story diverges from what you might expect is the followup statement that “everything you didn’t circle just became your Avoid-At-All-Costs List”; whatever happens, those 20 items get no attention until the top five are finished. They are distractions; tempting distractions, but distractions nonetheless.

When I tried this at home, it quickly became apparent that although most of my free time and effort goes into gaming, that is not where most of my priority goals are. (There’s also the undeniable fact that I’m not 25 any more, and it’s getting harder to run or even play multiple games in parallel.)

So, I’ve decided to limit myself to one set of rules, running no more than two campaigns at a time (reducing to one within the next two years), and running at most one session per week. Henceforth, all gaming activity and purchases must serve those decisions. (As you’ll see, those campaigns are the Dracula Dossier and the Trojan Reach – I hesitate to call it the Pirates of Drinax now since the PCs have gone off-piste.)

This means one of the regular groups needs to go, and for various reasons I reluctantly decided to drop Team Harrier; but they have started their own Mongoose Traveller campaign on the side now, so they will still get their Traveller fix, thus assuaging my guilt.

Traveller Retrospective

Is Mongoose Traveller 2nd Edition a good game? Yes, absolutely; in my opinion, the best version of Traveller since the original classic edition of 1977, and I like that A LOT. Is it good enough for me to discard Savage Worlds? Not for the kind of games I want to run these days, no.

Firstly, there’s a thematic difference. Traveller is space noir; characters are ordinary people who get caught up in adventures and intrigues almost by accident, and have no mechanical advantage over NPC mooks. Savage Worlds characters are pulp heroes who get drawn into action-adventure movies and gun down mooks by the dozen. At my table, we prefer the latter.

Secondly, we’ve spent years learning Savage Worlds, and there’s no real advantage in switching to another system, so no real reason to change. I can’t see anything in Traveller that I couldn’t do in Savage Worlds faster and with less record-keeping; YMMV of course.

I will continue to use the starships and worlds from Traveller, as I like them better than the Savage Worlds equivalents – this is probably just because I’ve been using them all my adult life and I’m more comfortable with them. If you remember the Little Black Books, essentially I have replaced Book 1 with the Savage Worlds core rulebook.

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