Welcome Back to the Labyrinth

"We have been away far too long, my friends," Ashoka declared, his face lit by the eldritch green glow of his staff. "But we have finally returned to the labyrinth whence our adventures first began."

"Just imagine the treasures that lie within," said Yun Tai, flexing his mighty muscles. "Wealth enough to live in luxury the rest of our days."

"And arcane artifacts of great power," added Ashoka his words dripping with avarice. "All ours for the taking!"

"Umm...guys?" Nysa interrupted. "Do you hear something dripping?"

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Taking Stock

As the year draws to a close it seems like a natural time to think about where this blog is headed and where I want to take it in the next year.  Of course, this may be moot because, if the doomsayers are correct, then we've all only got a year to live since the Mayan calendar only goes up to 2012 after which time the world will end for some reason.  But we might have even less time, since I've noticed that my kitchen calendar only goes to the end of 2010!  However, on the off-chance that arbitrary time-keeping devices don't actually herald the end of days, I'm going to go on making plans for the next year and beyond.

December has been pretty significant for me - I've made my 100th post and gained my 50th follower this month, which is something that neither I nor the Mayan codices could ever have predicted.  It was just a year ago that the first seeds of game blogging were planted in my  head.  Although I was largely unaware of the old school blogging community, I had been lurking in the shadows for some time, reading Swords Against the Outer Dark.  When I finally stopped lurking and posted some comments, Shane Mangus suggested that I might want to start a blog of my own.  Initially I dismissed this idea - what could I have to say that anyone would ever want to read?

But the seed was planted and a few months later, as I was about to launch a new campaign, I decided that a blog would be an excellent forum to post session  notes, house rules, and my gaming philosophy for the benefit of my players, some of whom haven't been in the hobby for very long and were unaware of how its history has shaped my perspective and play style.  And thus was Tales from the Flaming Faggot born.  Initially I had intended this blog to be solely a resource for players past and present, and had thought to allow only limited access.  I reconsidered, however, thinking that while it was unlikely that anyone else would ever read it, anyone who wanted to was welcome.

Ironically, very few of my intended audience ever read the blog, but I started attracting followers after just the first few posts.  As of this writing fifty-three people now follow this blog, only one of whom plays with me, so obviously the blog has grown well beyond its intended audience and purpose.  This has made me start to rethink the blog, starting with the title, which doesn't make a whole lot of sense outside the context of my campaign.  I've had nearly 10,000 visitors since I added the counter last May, and I suspect a large number of those visits have been from people looking for gay porn.

I haven't decided whether to change the title or not - once you've established a bit of name recognition it probably hurts more than helps to change it.  Also the Flaming Faggot roadhouse has been in every roleplaying campaign I've run for the last twenty-five years so it is an icon of my gaming history.

One thing is for certain - the subtitle needed to change, and I've already done so.  A subtitle should serve as a summary of what the blog is all about, and the old subtitle was suitable when the blog was just about my current campaign, but I've transcended that, so it was no longer appropriate.  My new subtitle, however,  implies a focus that I would really like to steer away from in the coming year.  I'd prefer to post fewer rants and more gaming goodness; but it made me laugh and it will do until I can think of something better.

So, where to go from here?  I've been perusing Google Stats to see what my most popular posts have been.  By a very large margin it has been, and continues to be, my Weird Wonder series, particularly the starfish post.  I assume that most of the visitors to these posts are non-gamers who have been searching for information about different animals and find themselves on some weird gaming blog.  I can only attribute the thousands of views of the starfish post to the fact that I included labeled pictures of starfish anatomy that biology students might find useful.  Discounting visits from people who are here by mistake, my next most popular posts are ones in which I express fairly strong opinions: When is a Dwarf not a Dwarf?, The Tyranny of Magic Missile, and Dungeons and Slavegirls in order of popularity.  The Tyranny of Magic Missile was linked on Grognardia, so that accounts for the large number of hits there, and Dungeons and Slavegirls has slavegirls, which is always good.

What I'd really like to do is to contribute more gaming goodness to the community.  The OSR blogging community is incredibly prolific and creative and I've really enjoyed reaping the benefits of other people's labours of love that have been freely distributed.  At the moment I am especially enjoying the various geomorph projects that people are posting, such as Dyson's Delve, Risus Monkey, Stonewerks, and The Nine and Thirty Kingdoms among others.  I'd love to do something like this, but my computer-fu is weak and I have no skill with computer graphics, layout, and design.

I do have some small skill at painting miniatures, and in the new year I plan to begin a series of articles devoted to all things miniature.  I won't presume to call it a 'how-to-paint' series, but I will cover everything from the basics to advanced techniques such as non-metallic-metal, and object-source lighting, as well as equipment and tools, as well as step-by-step painting projects.  I am by no means an expert painter; I got back into it about five years ago after a twenty year hiatus and I know from reading other blog posts that there are lots of other people getting back into painting just as I did.  I know that I would really have appreciated some 'how-to' advice when I was getting started, and I hope that this can be my contribution to the OSR community gestalt.  Painting has become my main obsession the last couple of years and it has become the hobby within the hobby that claims most of my free time each evening.  Looking back at miniatures I painted a couple of years ago - heck, even a few months ago, I can see how much I've grown and if I can improve this much so quickly so can anyone.

I'd like to thank everyone who had taken the time to read Tales from the Flaming Faggot this past year and I've enjoyed the many thoughtful comments that you have shared.  Stay tuned, there is more to come.

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Art of Dungeoneering: Chapter IV, Dispositions

Chapter IV is quite short, but is of profound importance.  The lesson that this chapter teaches can be summarized as: victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war and then seek to win.

1. Anciently the skillful warriors first made themselves invincible and awaited the enemy's moment of vulnerability.

2. Invincibility depends on one's self; the enemy's vulnerability on him.

3. It follows that those skilled in war can make themselves invincible but cannot cause an enemy to be certainly vulnerable.

4. Therefore it is said that one may know how to win, but cannot necessarily do so.

Ah, yet another of Sun Tzu's lessons that has been driven home by countless hours of Civilization IV.  This is pretty self-explanatory; yet another reiteration of 'attack when you are strong and your enemy is weak,' but to summarize: do what you can to mitigate attacks against you and expect the enemy to do the same.  Therefore seize opportunities to attack whenever they present themselves; no one is invincible all the time.  Better still, strive to create circumstances that will increase the enemies vulnerability.

5. Invincibility lies in the defence; the possibility of victory in the attack.

6. One defends when his strength is inadequate; he attacks when it is abundant.

7. The experts in defence conceal themselves as under the ninefold earth; those skilled in attack move as from above the ninefold heavens. Thus they are capable both of protecting themselves and of gaining a complete victory.

Take advantage of terrain features to aid in your defence and attack.  When defending try to position yourself around a choke point to limit the number of attackers that assault you and prevent them from outflanking you. This is a tactic that, I think, most players have an intuitive grasp of.  Whenever my players are badly outnumbered they try, whenever possible, to defend doorways or narrow passages, restricting the number of enemies that can attack at once, thus eliminating their numerical advantage.

I interpret 'attacking as from above the ninefold heavens' as emphasizing the importance of seizing high ground.  Employing missile fire while your enemies are trying to climb up to your position is a great way to thin out the ranks a bit before entering melee.  You might even force them to make a morale check and flee, allowing you to cut them down from behind as they run.

8. To foresee a victory which the ordinary man can foresee is not the acme of skill;

9.  To triumph in battle and be universally acclaimed 'Expert' is no the acme of skill, for to lift an autumn down requires no great strength; to distinguish between the sun and moon is no test of vision; to hear the thunderclap is no indication of acute hearing.

10. Anciently those called skilled in war conquered an enemy easily conquered.

11. And therefore the victories won by a master of war gain him neither reputation for wisdom nor merit for valour.

These passages are a bit obtuse, but I think what Sun Tzu is getting at is that Warlords who have won mighty battles gain a reputation for excellence that is largely undeserved because their victories were easily obtained.  They seem impressive only to the untrained.  The true master of war garners no reputation because his victories are far more subtle and he wins his wars by defeating his opponent without ever needing to fight and to the untrained observer it would appear that he did nothing at all.

12. For he wins his victories without erring.  'Without erring' means that whatever he does insures his victory; he conquers an enemy already defeated.

13. Therefore the skillful commander takes up a position in which he cannot be defeated and misses no opportunity to master his enemy.

14. Thus a victorious army wins its victories before seeking battle; an army destined to defeat fights in the hope of winning.

Finally we get to the meat of the matter and how we can apply this lesson to our gaming strategy:  attack only when victory is already assured.  This might seem obvious, but how often do characters charge into a fight without knowing exactly what they are getting into or how they will win?  All too often they rely on lucky dice rolls to win the day, and we all know how fickle fortune can be.  There are days when I'm sitting behind my screen rolling a shocking string of high 'to hit' rolls for the monsters and maximum damage more often than not, while the poor players can seldom roll above a '5' on their d20s.  What might otherwise have been an easy fight can easily turn into a debacle when you rely on your dice to carry the day.

How do you ensure victory before entering combat?  Don't play fair.  Stack the deck in your favour by taking every possible advantage of terrain and environment.  By doing so the circumstances of battle are so far in your favour that they mitigate against the vagaries of random chance.

If you cannot stack the odds in your favour, in other words win before entering battle, then don't initiate an attack.  Obviously there are going to be lots of occasions when you are forced to fight before you are ready, and in these circumstances, Sun Tzu advises that you fight defensively.  If you have taken precautions to minimize your vulnerability then the advantage always goes to the defender.

15. Those skilled in war cultivate the Tao and preserve the laws and are therefore able to formulate victorious policies.

16. Now the elements of the art of war are first, measurement of space; second, estimation of quantities; third, calculations; fourth, comparisons; and fifth, chances of victory.

17. Measurements of space are derived from the ground.

18. Quantities derive from measurement, figures from quantities, comparisons from figures, and victory from comparison.

Measurement of space includes an assessment of the geographic area; estimation of quantities involves determining the numbers of the enemy, their equipment, and morale; comparison is made between your force and the enemy's, and calculations are made to determine whether or not you will defeat them.  Only after considering these factors can you launch an attack with confidence.

19. Thus a victorious army is as a hundredweight balanced against a grain; a defeated army as a grain balanced against a hundredweight.

20. It is because of disposition that a victorious general is able to make his people fight with the effect of pent-up waters which, suddenly released, plunge into a bottomless abyss.

If you plan for every contingency and attack only when you are sure to win, you can be assured of the support of your henchmen and hirelings.  Such will be their confidence in your plan that morale checks will be unnecessary and they are unlikely to flee at the worst possible moment.  If you leave battles to chance, an unlucky turn of events can have your hirelings rolling, and probably failing, morale checks and leaving you in an even worse situation, thus compounding the unlucky dice dice rolls and making defeat all too likely.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Night of the Black Mass

With the solstice at hand and Christmas nearly upon us, I've been in a festive mood and so, to contribute to everyone's Christmas cheer, I've taken it upon myself to improve upon Clement Moore's classic poem, The Night Before Christmas.

I might just burn for this.  Enjoy!

The Night of the Black Mass

'Twas the night of the Black Mass
and in the far northern land,
the Men of Leng stirred in dread Sarkomand.

The virgins were bound on the altars with care,
in hopes Shub-Niggurath soon would be there.
The cultists were gathered in black hooded robes,
while visions of chaos filled their left frontal lobes.
And I with my dagger held at just the right slant,
began to recite a blasphemous chant.

When out on the lawn there arose such a wailing,
I interrupted the ritual to see what was ailing.
Out of the dungeon I flew like a flash,
and threw open the doors of the crypt with a crash.
The chuckle-dark moon aloft in the night,
bathed the graveyard below in a sickly, wan light.

I was frozen in terror, for before me, I knew,
stood the Black Goat of the Woods and her thousand young, too.
With her black, squirming tentacles so slimy and slick,
I knew in a moment I was going to be sick.

More awful than Deep Ones, her young, so depraved,
and they gibbered, and hooted, as they danced on the graves.
Now dashing! Now dancing! Now capering madly!
They disinterred all the dead and befouled them gladly!

Into the crypt and through every tomb,
fornicating with corpses in the sepulchral gloom.
I looked on, amazed, at their wild bacchanal,
which proceeded, unhindered, through the great hall.
So into the dungeon, the dark young they flew,
with me in their wake, and Shub-Niggurath, too.

And then, with dawning horror, I comprehended the truth,
amid the prancing and pawing of each cloven hoof.
There was nothing to ward us; ceremony incomplete,
so they fell upon cultists and started to eat.

She oozed foetid ichor from out of each pore,
and her fur was all matted with dried blood and gore.
Black, ropy tentacles writhed on her back;
a dark cosmic horror, about to attack.

Her eyes - filled with malice! A visage so scary!
With a bestial rage that would make Dagon wary!
Her gaping, puckered mouths were filled with sharp teeth,
which she embedded into warm flesh, like a sheath.

The bloody appendage that was stuffed in her maw,
was all that remained of old Jack McGraw.
She had a grotesquely distended round belly,
that emitted foul gases that were really quite smelly.

She was an ancient evil who'd crossed cosmic gulfs,
and when she cast her gaze 'pon me, I soiled myself.
She snatched up the high priest and tore off his head,
and at that very moment my sanity fled.

She spoke not a word, but returned to the feast,
and filled her great belly with ten cultists, at least.
And wrapping a tentacle across my slack face,
one parting caress then she quit the damned place.

She gathered her young with a bestial roar,
and they all capered off to be seen, nevermore.
But I heard her intone, ere she departed the land,
"Cthulhu R'leyh wgah'nagi fhtagn!"

Have a Lovecraftian Christmas, and a Cthulhu New Year!

Assault on Angelis: Round Two

The second round of play in our ongoing Warhammer 40K campaign pitted Dark Angels vs. Tyranids and my Orks vs Chaos Space Marines.

My campaign special rule for this round allowed me to set up my army after seeing how the Chaos Marines deployed and gave me the first turn to boot!  Our mission was Capture and Control, and victory would go to the player who controlled the most of three objectives scattered across the table.

In my first turn I advanced towards the Chaos Marines fortified in the ruins with my warbikes and trukk (carrying my Warboss and Nobs), while the foot-slogging boyz and killa kanz followed behind, hoofing it at double time.

There are few things as awe-inspiring as an Ork horde advancing across the table top - except perhaps the firepower of Chaos Marines.  After my opponent's first turn of shooting the warbikes were mostly wiped out, my trukk became a debris-filled crater and there were fewer boyz in the ranks than I'd started with.

As my Warboss and his squad of Nobs bailed out of the burning wreckage of their transport, they were assaulted by a hideously mutated Chaos Dreadnaught.  Despite a few casualties inflicted by the twisted monstrosity, they brought it down with some well-placed blows from their big choppas, then continued to advance toward the bulk of the Chaos armoured units.

Despite the devastating firepower of the Chaos Marines shooting phases I was still feeling pretty good about my chances.  I was in control of one of the objectives, and still had lots of muscle to bring to bear as my three large squads of boyz continued to advance.  My Stormboy reserves still hadn't deployed, but I was counting on their deep strike ability to put them anywhere on the board they needed to be - hopefully swinging the tide of battle and chasing the Chaos Marine from the field in disgrace.

Predictably, that's when everything started to go wrong.

My Warboss and his Nobs managed to destroy the Chaos armoured Rhino, but were slain in turn, and since they are my most killy unit, losing them was a hard blow.

I diverted one squad of boyz towards the ruins to take out the shooters that were positioned on the upper floors.  They fought their way past a unit of Slaanesh marines outside the ruins, but then ran afoul of a tough unit of Khorne Berserkers who wiped my boyz out.  My other unit of Boyz engaged the crab-like Chaos Defiler, and destroyed it, but were slaughtered in the counter attack.  Only one Killa Kan survived to make it into combat and was quickly immobilized and its weapons were destroyed, rendering it a useless statue.

My last unit of boyz never actually made it into combat.  A sneaky Tzeentch sorceror kept using a dirty, underhanded psychic power to push them back further than they could advance each round, and they suffered constant attrition from Chaos Marine shooting attacks.

Finally, my Storm Boyz, led by the dreaded Boss Zagstruk entered the field and, using their jetpacks, they made a swooping attack onto the Khorne Berserkers, but were , instead, utterly annihilated.  The game was pretty much over at this point, but I made a last ditch effort to run my few remaining boyz to an unclaimed objective.  We were in turn five, the Chaos Marines controlled one objective, and the game could end at any time.  While victory was now impossible for me, if I could at least seize an objective I could force a draw.

Unfortunately, that tricksy Tzeentch sorceror wasn't done with me yet, and he used his dirty psychic tricks to force my boyz away from their objective.  Another turn of Chaos Marine shooting reduced my last squad to a single Nob.  I conceded the game at this point, since there was now no way for him to get close enough to the objective to claim it, and he'd certainly be shot to pieces during the next shooting phase.

While I had started out strongly with a great advantage in set-up, the game turned into a massacre; my entire force was destroyed while the Chaos Marines suffered only minimal casualties.

Over at the adjacent table, the Dark Angels had a bad run of luck and were wiped out by the Tyranid horde. So, now at the end of the second round of battle, each of the four players has one win and one loss - a pretty even match so far.  My next fight will be against the Dark Angels, while the Chaos Marines will test the will of the Dark Gods against the implacable might of the Tyranid broods.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Assault on Angelis: Initial Engagements - Orks vs. Tyranids

Equal measures of illness and laziness has resulted in me being way behind on posting the results of our last Warhammer 40K campaign session and now I'm desperately trying to get both battles written up before our next round of play tomorrow.

Deffkoptas roared overhead, their pilots racing towards the enemy deployment zone, eager to come to grips with the onrushing horde.  Even as Ghazbag leaped aboard his transport truck with his retinue of Nobs, the ground shook from the detonations of the bigbomms the koptas dropped amid the Genestealer brood.  Ignoring the chaos around him, Ghazbag pointed at the Hive Tyrant in the distance and roared at the driver to 'go fasta.' 

The initial battles in our Assault on Angelis Warhammer 40K campaign kicked off with a bang and two very closely fought games.  My battle against Steve's Tyranid army proved to be one of the most exciting games I've ever played.  Our mission was Capture and Control, which requires each player to capture an objective in their opponent's deployment zone while defending their own.

My first turn started out well, with my unit of Deff Koptas making a pre-game scout move, then turbo-boosting deep into the the Tyranid deployment zone where they dropped their bomb payloads on a huge brood of Genestealers - some of the scariest troops in the Warhammer 40K universe.  Although all five bomb templates landed on the Genestealer brood, my rolls to wound were pathetic, allowing a handful of genestealers and their Broodlord to survive the bombardment.

Meanwhile Warboss Ghazbag and his retinue of Nobs careened across the battlefield in a ramshackle ork trukk, to get within assault range of the Tyranid Hive Tyrant.  Bailing out of the trukk, the squad assaulted the Hive Tyrant and it's Hive Guard defenders, but Warboss Ghazbag, already suffering two wounds from a pre-game assassination attempt, was removed as a casualty before he could even bring his power claw to bear.  The ork Nobs retaliated, slaying the Hive Guard and slicing the Hive Tyrant into sushi with their big choppas.

I was able to deploy my reserves in the second turn - Boss Zagstruk and his unit of Storm Boyz.  Storm Boyz are suicidally crazy orks who strap jet engines onto their backs and make deep-striking aerial assaults into enemy positions.  My Storm Boyz targeted a Tyranid Zoanthrope, whose powerful psychic lance threatened to wreak great harm upon my army.  Although two of the boyz crash landed in the suicidal assault, the rest struck home slaying the Zoanthrope and a nearby Ripper Swarm to boot.

By the fourth turn both the Hive Tryant and my Warboss were out of action, and my Nobs and Storm Boyz had dealt with the Tyranid threat in their own part of the board, but things were not going so well elsewhere.  I'd lost an entire 20 man squad of ork boyz to a Hormagaunt brood that was reinforced by a Carnifex, a Biovore and a Tyranid Warrior Brood, and it was time to start looking to claiming the objectives I would need to win the game.  I started moving my remaining squad of ork boyz back to my own deployment area to defend my objective, while moving my Nobs into attack position against the oncoming Tyranid swarm.  The entire Nob squad was wiped out by the few remaining Genestealers and Broodlord that had survived the aerial bombardment in turn one, but Boss Zagstruk and my Killa Kans - goblins hard-wired into metal walkers - brought down the monstrous Carnifex.

By now both sides had suffered terrific losses and the board, initially packed with miniatures, was beginning to look awfully thinned out; the race was on to claim the objective in the ork deployment zone and win the game.  Turn after turn, my boyz ran towards the objective, their ranks constantly depleted by weapons fire and a bioplasmic barrage from the Tyranid Biovore.  By the end of turn five things were looking very grim for me as Steve's Hormagaunts, Genestealers and Warriors were bearing down on my few remaining boyz and their Nob leader and we began rolling at the end of each turn to see if the game ended.  I desperately wanted the game to end since I was in sole control of an objective and would win only so long as the game ended before the Tyranids could take it away from me.  Sadly the game went on.  I tried every dirty trick I could think of, including maneuvering my trukk between my objective and the oncoming Tyranids forcing them to either waste a turn assaulting it or wasting precious inches of movement going around it.  The end of turn six still had me in sole control of my objective but with only my Nob and a single boy left guarding it.  We rolled to end the game, and despite my prayers to the ork god, Gork, the game continued into turn seven.

The climactic conclusion of the game saw the Genestealer Broodlord, who had proved invincible throughout the game, surviving a bomb barrage and a direct hit with the wrecking ball of my trukk, assaulting my Nob and Boy to contest the objective.  The game would end automatically at the end of turn seven, so there were three possibilities: the Broodlord could slay my Nob and Boy and claim my objective to win (most likely), each of us could fail to slay the other, leaving the objective contested and the game a draw (next most likely, and my best hope), or I could survive the Broodlord's assault and slay it in turn, winning the game (Hail Mary).

The Broodlord's assault inflicted several wounds on my two defenders.  My lone boy was slain outright, but my Nob miraculously made all of his armour saves and survived.  He counter-attacked with his power claw and killed the Broodlord in the last half of turn seven.

Games don't end any closer than this - the outcome came down to some very tense dice rolls in the last turn but, this time at least, fate favoured me and I managed to win a very narrow victory.  This was an important game for me to win, too.  We begin each round of play by selecting a special gambit.  Steve picked Assassin, which inflicted two wounds on my Warboss before the game even started, effectively rendering him useless, while I picked All or Nothing.  Normally when you win a game you can claim two map tiles, and only one if you lose, but with the All or Nothing gambit you gain four tiles if you win and none at all if you lose, so I had a lot riding on this match.  My victory has allowed me to occupy a vast swath of the campaign map including the  capital city, though I'm sure the other players will have something to say about that.

I like to nominate an MVP for the match and I'm tempted to nominate my humble trukk.  This ramshackle transport, held together by baling wire and duct tape is seldom able to survive past the first turn.  At a mere 35 points my only hope was that it would last long enough to get my Warboss and Nobs into close combat a little quicker.  Instead, this plucky little trukk survived the entire game, and although I didn't do much damage with it, it was a constant thorn in Steve's side as I kept using it as a moving roadblock, delaying his advance long enough for me to hold on until the end of turn seven.  But for shear cinematic flair I have to go with my Nob, Killboy, last surviving member of a squad of ork boyz, who single-handedly slew a dreaded Tyranid Broodlord.  This is the stuff that legends are made of, and it earns Killboy the top spot as my most valuable player of the game.

My next match is against Jordan's Chaos Space Marine army, and I'm looking forward to bashing the skulls of dem Chaos ladz and givin' em whatfor.

New Google Reading Level Filter

Google has an interesting new search filter that breaks blogs and sites down by reading level.  Just for fun, I searched my own blog and apparently I have an overall rating of intermediate, with the following breakdown of posts:

Results by reading level for Tales from the Flaming Faggot:
By comparison, here are the results for Canada's national newspaper, the Globe and Mail, which is also of intermediate reading level, though with a larger overall proportion of intermediate level articles:

Results by reading level for Toronto Globe and Mail:

And it's American equivalent, the New York Times, which has an even spread of Basic, Intermediate, and Advanced level articles:

Results by reading level for New York Times:

And, just for fun, the World Weekly News, which is rated as Basic reading level although, apparently, they have a larger percentage of Intermediate articles and a smaller percentage of Basic articles than my own blog:

Results by reading level for World Weekly News:
This filter is kind of neat, although I'm skeptical about it's accuracy.  I've noticed that the overall reading level doesn't always jive with the breakdown of articles by reading level.  I'm also not sure that the filter is of any practical value, but it is kind of fun to play with.

If you'd like to check out how your own blog is rated click the 'Advanced Search' function below the Google Search bar and select 'annotated reading level' from the drop down list.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Do You Play D&D?

Last weekend was my daughter's fifth birthday and our home was invaded by a small horde of excited little girls, most of whom, like my daughter, were attending their first 'real' birthday party.  Because my daughter attends a private school most of her friends hailed from all parts of the city, many of whom had to drive 30 or 40 minutes to get to our house, so it was more practical and convenient for parents to stay for the party rather than drop their kids off then have to drive all the way back two hours later.  While my wife supervised the party activities, my job was to entertain the adults, which mostly entailed ensuring that the coffee and tea was kept flowing and the snack trays filled.

It was a bit awkward, though, having to make conversation with a group of people, mostly women, that I knew only slightly if at all, for two hours.  I'm not a particularly out-going person and once we've discussed the weather, my repertoire of small-talk is pretty much exhausted.  After about an hour, with the ladies still deeply engrossed in 'baby' talk, Jeff, the one father among the visitors suddenly blurted out: "Hey, do you play D&D?"

"Umm...yeah," I replied, uncomfortably aware that all the women were now looking at  me as if I had just been caught peeing in their flower beds.

Although I'd been careful to 'sanitize' the living room of any obvious gaming material, Jeff had seen a small corner of a piece of hex paper sticking out of a book shelf.  To a fellow gamer, that's as good as a flashing neon sign.

He and I happily chatted about gaming for the rest of the party while the women squirmed uncomfortably and tried very hard not to listen.  It was an interesting situation and it got me to thinking about how D&D has become mainstream enough that folks are comfortable enough to 'come out of the closet' and talk about gaming in various social situations, which seldom happened back in the '80's when we were vilified as demon worshipers, but it's still regarded as an odd enough hobby to get you a raised eyebrow from folks who figure you should have outgrown such childishness years ago.  Had Jeff and I been talking hockey, football, or cars we wouldn't have gotten a second glance.

Actor, Mike Meyers' Wikipedia entry states that "Mike is a Dungeons and Dragons player and was one of several celebrities who participated in the Worldwide Dungeons and Dragons Game Day in 2006."  Apparently being a Dungeons & Dragons player is an odd enough pastime to warrant mention.  I'm sure Mike has many hobbies and interests, but the only other one mentioned was soccer, and this because of notable achievements in the sport, such as playing for Hollywood United F.C. and scoring a penalty shot during a sudden death shootout during a UNICEF UK soccer match.

It appears that despite the bumper sticker I recently saw, while driving down Main Street, that read, "I was playing D&D before it was cool," we're still not quite out of the ghetto.  Sure, it's now seen as a fine pastime for young adults; BADD has packed up their bags and left town, and kids are no longer likely to get suspended from school for playing in the lunchroom, but apparently it isn't the sort of hobby that respectable middle-aged adults ought to be enjoying.  But you know what?  I'm okay with that.

One of the great things about getting older is not having to worry about what anyone else thinks and I'm perfectly happy to talk D&D with a fellow gamer in a room full of nervous women trying not to ogle the car-wreck.  This is a far cry from 30 years ago when I worried that D&D might impair my future reproductive success.  Fortunately it didn't and I have the crumbs of chocolate birthday cake I'm still picking out of the carpet to prove it.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Callers: They Ain't Just for Square-dancing

I've often wondered if everyone in North America was subjected to square-dancing in school, or if this was just a special torture reserved for kids growing up on the Canadian prairies. While the rest of the world was boogying to Stayin' Alive and Disco Star Wars we poor adolescent wretches at Sutherland Elementary School were lined up in the gym, and ordered by the Caller to 'Bow to our partners, and bow to our corners.' It was an awkward affair; nervously clasping the clammy hands of the girl next to you and shuffling through the steps like the walking dead. Inevitably, at some point during the dosie-do, my arm would brush her budding bosom and I'd die of flaming embarrassment under her outraged glare.

For some reason, the Saskatoon School Board thought that square-dancing was a vital skill that no child should grow up without, though I've never actually seen or heard of anyone square-dancing ever since, for which I am profoundly grateful.

I have much fonder memories of Callers in my early D&D games. The caller, for those who started playing with later editions, was a player designated to interact with the DM on behalf of the party. This is a role that has fallen by the wayside in contemporary play, and I've heard it argued that the Caller was an artefact held over from the earliest days of D&D when twenty or more players supposedly played at once. I don't buy this. Our group always used a Caller, even though we usually only had four players not including the DM, and we found it damned useful. Furthermore,the example of play in the Holmes edition rule book, which I started the hobby with, features dialogue between the DM, the Caller, and the Players. Likewise, AD&D's Dungeon Masters Guide also has an example of play with dialogue between the DM, the Leader, and Other Characters. So clearly a Caller or Leader was assumed to be a normal part of play in these days.

We often divvy'd up responsibilities among the players: one would serve as caller, another as mapper, a third kept track of the treasure, while the fourth recorded everything that happened for future reference. So every player had a hand in keeping the game session organized and well-documented and it worked really well.

It's been many years since I've had a caller at my game and I really miss it. I don't think anyone who hasn't sat behind a DM screen can really appreciate how much multi-tasking the beleagured Game Master has to do, and how difficult it is to pay attention to everyone, particularly when everybody is talking at once. Try as I might to encourage everyone to wait patiently and state their actions one at a time, as soon as things heat up and people start getting excited everyone wants to be the first to announce their actions.

DM: Okay, Ragnar, the orc hits you for four points of damage.
Player: But I drank a potion of invisibility and ran across the room.
DM: What? No you didn't!
Player: Yes, I did. I told you, remember?
DM: Was that what you were muttering while I was talking to Bob?
Player: Yeah!
DM: Sucks to be you. Next time wait until you have my attention. You're standing in front of the orc, bleeding from four points of damage.

Another frequent point of confusion is when the party engages in a lengthy discussion about what to do next. I use this time when the players are talking amongst themselves to review my notes, check the map, prepare miniatures for the next encounter or look up a rule in the book. I am NOT paying the least attention to what the players are saying. My assumption is that when the players figure out what they want to do someone will explain it to me. Instead they say, 'okay that's what we're doing,' and look at me expectantly as though I've been hanging on their every word for the last five minutes of debate.

Here's where the Caller comes in. Having one designated player interact with the DM means that he will always have the DM's undivided attention while he describes what the players want to do and explains their plan succinctly and unambiguously. This means that no one ever gets stuck on the end of an orc's scimitar when they intended to be hiding invisibly on the far side of the room, and that the DM has a thorough grasp of the party's plan.

It is interesting to note that the DM's guide refers to this player not as the Caller, as Holmes called him, but as the Leader, which is a subtle difference and implies that the role extends to more than just being the player's voice to the DM. I've never played in group where one player was designated as the leader, per se, but as I've been studying The Art of War, it has become apparent to me that it would be beneficial to have a designated leader, not only to serve as the caller, but also to ensure that there is someone paying attention to the party's overall resources and deciding when it's time to rest and to make sure that every player's opinions and ideas are heard rather than allowing one alpha-player to dominate the rest, as I've seen happen in certain groups.  A leader might not be necessary for all groups, but I think it would go a long way to ensuring that the players and the DM are all on the same page and the party never again wipes because no one was aware just how low on hit points and spells the whole group was before going into that boss fight.

Now, I give you music to boogie to, courtesy of the 1970's.  May square-dancing die a grisly death.

The Art of Dungeoneering: Chapter III, Offensive Strategy

This chapter contains some excellent advice on maximizing your gains while minimizing your losses.  A lot of Sun Tzu's advice in this chapter is obviously applicable to gaming and much of it doesn't require a lot of creative interpretation.

1. Generally in war the best policy is to take a state intact; to ruin it is inferior to this.

2. To capture the enemy's army is better than to destroy it; to take intact a battalion, a company, or a five-man squad is better than to destroy them.

3. For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill.  To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.

This statement nicely illustrates the difference between old school versus contemporary play styles.  The ultimate goal in old-school dungeon adventures is to get the treasure horde and get out alive.  To quote Sean Bean's character, Spence, from the movie, Ronin: "Got the swag, kept the money. It's a job well done, a job well done. That's a fact."  If you can get the swag without having to bleed for it, all the better.

Remember, too, that you want that swag intact.  Big battles in the treasure room can put your investment at risk.  Indiscriminately hurling fireballs and lightning bolts everywhere can melt the gold and potentially ruin any magic items that are in the area of effect.  All in all it's best to dispose of the guardians without engaging them in protracted battles and decrease the chances of damaging the treasure horde you've worked so hard to find.

4. Thus, what is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy's strategy;

5. Next best is to disrupt his alliances;

6. The next best is to attack his army.

7. The worst policy is to attack cities.  Attack cities only when there is no alternative.

Try to avoid getting drawn into unnecessary battles, and above all don't go charging headlong into the Big Boss Lair (TM).  BBL's are deathtraps just waiting to kill unwary adventurers.  You can be sure that the Big Boss ain't in there alone - he'll have minions and all sorts of nasty surprises.  Moreover, he's probably got a prepared and rehearsed plan for dealing with intruders.  So don't give this guy the home-court advantage.  Instead, try to be such a pain in his ass that he is tempted to come out and fight you on ground of your choosing.  This is a tactic I learned from playing WAY too many hours of Civilization IV; when an opponent's city is heavily defended I find that rampaging around the countryside destroying his tile improvements will provoke him to send his troops out from behind those city walls to fight you on open ground.  The same tactic can also work in the dungeon.

But better, even, than fighting your foe on your terms is not fighting him at all.  Look for opportunities to force him out without battle at all.  If you can cut the Big Boss off completely, isolating him in his lair you may be able to negotiate a surrender, allowing him to withdraw, leaving you free to ransack his treasure horde without ever having swung a scimitar.

Another possibility is to look for rivalries within the dungeon and exploit them to the best of your ability.  Getting two rival factions to fight against each other while you sit back, watch the show and eat popcorn is an opportunity not to be missed.  Then you can mop up the survivors and possibly loot two treasure hordes.  Job well done.  That's a fact.

8. To prepare the shielded wagons and make ready the necessary arms and equipment requires at least three months; to pile up earthen ramps against the walls and additional three months will be needed.

9. If the general is unable to control his impatience and orders his troops to swarm up the wall like ants, one-third of them will be killed without taking the city.  Such is the calamity of these attacks.

10. Thus, those skilled in war subdue the enemy's  army without battle.  They capture his cities without assaulting them and overthrow his state without protracted operations.

I fondly remember a recent dungeon adventure wherein the players decided that it would be more efficient to split up and search three different areas at once.  One character all by his lonesome came upon the goblin king's throne room.  Seeing the goblin king sitting by himself on his throne, the already-dead-but-didn't-know-it fighter charged in and was ambushed by a whole lot of elite goblin warriors who had been hiding out of sight waiting for some hapless adventurer to charge in by himself.  Losing even one player character weakens the party considerably - representing 20%, or more, of your fighting force, just like the ill-advised city assault that Sun Tzu warns us about.  So don't get buck fever and throw your character away in a suicidal attempt at glory.  Stay frosty and stick to the plan.

11. Your aim must be to take All-under-heaven intact.  Thus your troops are not worn out and your gains will be complete.  This is the art of offensive strategy.

12. Consequently, the art of using troops is this: When ten to the enemy's one, surround him;

13. When five times his strength, attack him;

14. If double his strength, divide him.

15. If equally matched you may engage him.

16. If weaker numerically, be capable of withdrawing;

17. And if in all respects unequal, be capable of eluding him, for a small force is but booty for one more powerful.

I think these points are all pretty self-explanatory, but line #16 is worth emphasizing.  Adventuring parties are almost always numerically inferior in dungeon settings so be certain, whenever possible, to leave yourself a path to retreat in case you find you've bitten off more than you can chew and are in over your head.

Small, weakened bands of adventurers are excellent sources of treasure and magic items that no evil warlord can pass up.

18. Now the general is the protector of the state.  If this protection is all-embracing, the state will surely be strong; if defective, the state will certainly be weak.

My interpretation of this is that a party is only as strong as its weakest link.

19. Now there are three ways in which a ruler can bring misfortune upon his army:

20. When ignorant that the army should not advance, to order an advance or ignorant that it should not retire, to order a retirement.  This is described as 'hobbling the army.'

Just about every single party-wipe I've experienced in the last few years has been due to the party advancing when they were out of spells and low on hit points, but couldn't resist going 'just a little further.'  This is when you are most vulnerable to the vagaries of fate - a few bad dice rolls can spell the end of the party.  Likewise if you are still in good shape it might be better to push on and keep the opposition back-pedaling rather than retreat and allow the enemy to regroup and consolidate his losses.

21. When ignorant of military affairs, to participate in their administration.  This causes the officers to be perplexed.

This is a mistake I see in the workplace all the time: micro-managers who insist on 'managing' things they don't understand, causing no end of confusion.

In the game, I have often seen dominant players dismiss excellent suggestions made by quiet players who allow themselves to be over-ruled.  These dominants then go on to lead the party to defeat.  If you have a 'type-A' personality alpha-dog among your players make sure that he or she doesn't dominate the group to the exclusion of others.  Some players, particularly shy or quiet ones, have excellent ideas that they sometimes are afraid to voice or defend strongly enough in the face of a strongly confidant player who shuts them down.  I've don't know how many times I've heard brilliant but diffident suggestions, that would certainly have succeeded,  over-ruled by strong willed players who act without thinking.

22. When ignorant of command problems to share in the exercise of responsibilities.  This engenders doubts in the minds of the officers.

23. If the army is confused and suspicious, neighbouring rulers will cause trouble.  This is what is meant by the saying: 'A confused army leads to another's victory.'

In a D&D tournament I played in back in the mid-eighties, our group managed to do exceedingly well during the first round of play, winning every single point that was possible.  Looking at the score sheets at the end of the day we saw that our lead was so commanding that only the next highest scoring group had even the smallest chance of winning, and then only if they did very well the next day and if our group got no points at all.  Our victory was assured.

During the next round of play the following day, our group's well-oiled machine fell apart during the very first encounter, as we became confused and started arguing amongst ourselves.  Unbelievably, we wiped without scoring a single point while the second place team did very well that day.  They snatched victory from almost certain defeat and won the tournament (each receiving a very spiffy replica sword for first place), while my group had to be satisfied with second place.

My friends and I learned a valuable lesson that day about not fighting amongst ourselves; it only leads to confusion and defeat.  We realized it would have been better to pick a course of action - any course of action - and execute it as a unified group all pulling together.

24. Now there are five circumstances in which victory may be predicted:

25. He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot will be victorious.

26. He who understands how to use both large and small forces will be victorious.

27. He whose ranks are united in purpose will be victorious.

28. He who is prudent and lies in wait for an enemy who is not, will be victorious.

29. He whose generals are able and not interfered with by the sovereign will be victorious.

30. It is in these five matters that the way to victory is known.

31. Therefore I say: 'Know the enemy and know  yourself'; in a hundred battles you will never be in peril.

32. When you are ignorant of the enemy but know yourself, your chances of winning or losing are equal.

33. If ignorant of both your enemy and yourself, you are certain in every battle to be in peril.

I can't think of any better advice for dungeoneering than this.  Know what your enemy is capable of  and understand what you are capable of.  Knowing yourself also means monitoring the status of every member of the party, which sometimes gets forgotten.  All too often players whose characters are low on hit points don't speak up, assuming that everyone else is good to go and don't want to be a party-pooper.  If every party member is running low on go juice and if no one speaks up then the party is in real trouble.

As I delve into Art of War and closely study its lessons for gaming, I'm coming to appreciate the value of nominating a party leader.  Such a leader can be responsible for monitoring the status of each of the characters and keeping an overall eye on the total party fitness, thereby enabling him or her to decide when to retire and rest or keep going.  A leader can also serve to cut short argument and debate that carries on too long, and force the group to make a choice then follow through without dithering.  And finally, the leader can make sure that every player is being heard and that one strong player is not dominating the game.  I believe that this leadership should come from among the players and not the DM, who needs to remain neutral because it can become far too easy for the DM to start leading the party if he becomes involved in player management.

Next up: Chapter IV, Dispositions

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Assault on Angelis: 1st Interlude

Dark Angel Transport Ship Redemption inbound to Angelis Prime, 1420 Galactic Standard Time
Belial, commander of the Dark Angels 1st company - the Deathwings - studied the grim-faced soldiers arrayed before him in the briefing room.  How many would survive the crucible they were about to enter and how many would die honouring their oaths to the Emperor like so many of their battle-brothers before them?

"We caught a break this time.  A Rogue Trader surveying the galactic eastern fringe was about to enter the warp when the Tyranid hive fleet entered the Angelis sector.  The trader was able to escape and bring word of the invasion before the bugs masked the region with their warp shadow."

"We are the only chapter with a ship near enough to inderdict and try to prevent Angelis from being scoured clean, like Tyran.  Our mission is to drop into the capital city, link up with the imperial garrison and, once we get a briefing from the planetary governor, hold the line until Imperial Guard reinforcements can be sent.  Questions?"

There were none, and Belial noted with satisfaction that his men remained imperturbable and maintained stoic discipline in the face of the upcoming trial.

"Right, prep for action.  Equipment check in thirty minutes."

Governor's Palace, Corona City, Angelis Prime, 1505 GST
Lord Azrael tossed the Governor's corpse aside with contempt and wondered, not for the first time this day, if one of the Chaos Gods was against him.  For more than fifty years he had been searching the galaxy for the long lost Golden Eye of Tzeentch.  It was the most damnable luck to have finally traced it to Angelis, only to find the planet infested with a Tyranid swarm.  He had managed to get to Corona City ahead of the advancing brood and interrogate the governor, but the groveling fool had never even heard of the Golden Eye.

One of his men entered the chamber and saluted, "My Lord, the Ork raiding party from the Kill  Cruiser Black Tooth is on planet.  As you predicted, they were lured by the rumours we spread about a 'hidden Imperial weapons cache,' and they've landed on the coordinates we sent them - right in the thick of the Tyranid swarm."

Azrael smiled.  Finally, something was going right.  With luck the savage brutes would slow the Tyranid advance long enough for him and his men to find the Eye of Tzeentch and escape.

"My Lord," called out his man on the sensor array,"long range scanners have detected Imperial drop ships entering the upper atmosphere.  IFF signature reads Dark Angels."

By all the demons of the warp, what else could go wrong?  Azrael strode angrily to the balconey and searched the sky.  Already the dropships' tell-tail contrails were visibile and converging on Corona City.

"Assemble the men and prepare for battle," Azrael commanded his lieutenant, "let us welcome our former brethren to Angelis."

Plains of Gagarin, NE of Corona City, 1510 GST
Warlord Ghazbag's irritation was piqued as he watched the Tyranid horde swarm towards his landing craft.  There was no weapons cache, and no swag meant no pay.

"Well, boyz, looks like dem Chaos lads was pulling our teef," he growled.

"Mebbe, boss," said his chief mek, Lugnutz, "but them shootas da Chaos boyz has got are dead killy and dos spiky tanks dey drive, I bet I could make 'em go even fasta.  What say we go find da Chaos bunch, bash der heads and take der stuff?"  

"Aye, but first we got a nice little scrap brewin' to warm us up." Ghazbag watched a gigantic Carnifex in the distance tearing apart a refinery with its crab-like appendages.  The thought of killing such a monster in hand-to-hand combat excited him so much he absent-mindedly snapped his prosthetic power claw, cutting off the hand of the grot that was oiling it, which elicited gales of laughter from  his personal guards.

"Awright boyz!" Ghazbag roared, "Time for some fun.  Let's kill some bugs!"

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Assault on Angelis: A Prelude to War

My Swords and Wizardry campaign is on temporary hiatus for the next few months as our group has decided to take a break to run a Warhammer 40K campaign.  I'm pretty excited by this as my usual miniature gaming consists of pick-up games against random opponents at the local game store, which lacks the context of an ongoing series of battles with the continuity and story line that is only possible in a campaign.  It also gives me a strong incentive to get my Ork army painted.

For those unfamiliar with Warhammer 40K, it is a game of gothic sci-fi horror set in the 41st millennium, and emulates the cinematic action of such movies as Aliens, Pitch Black, The Chronicles of Riddick, and Starship Troopers.  Mankind has spread across the galaxy, a founding a vast empire ruled by the Emperor on Terra, who has occupied the Golden Throne for over 10,000 years - kept alive only by his supreme force of will, his broken, decayed body maintained by stasis fields and psi-fusion reactors.  But mankind teeters on the precipice of extinction, assailed on all sides by enemies - from the ravenous and horrific Tyranid Hive Fleets, the rapacious and warlike Ork hordes, and the treachery of Chaos,which seduces and twists even the Emperor's most loyal subjects.

The antagonists in our campaign:
The Dark Angels (Garth Bowman) are one of the founding chapters of the Space Marines.  There are one thousand space marine chapters consisting of one thousand men.  This works out to about one space marine for each inhabited world in the Imperium.  The product of genetic engineering, brutal training, and the most advanced weaponry known to man, the space marines are mankind's ultimate warriors.  Each marine's battle armour provides the armament and protection of a modern tank.  Picture a cross-between the Imperial Sardaukar troops from Dune, and the Mobile Infantry from Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers and you've got the picture.  The space marines are humanity's first line of defense, endlessly pitting their skill and courage against insurmountable odds.

Space Marines from the Crimson Fists chapter

Chaos Space Marines (Jordan Nykolaishen) are apostate space marines who have become corrupted by the taint of chaos and have forsworn their oaths to the Emperor; they now serve the dark gods and their own twisted desires.  Betrayers and traitors all, there can be no greater stain on the honour of the space marines than their fallen bretheren.

Chaos Space Marine
 (picture shamelessly swiped from Google Images)

The Tyranids (Steve Snaz) hail from beyond the outer reaches of our galaxy and travel through space their Hive Fleets consuming all biomass in their path, leaving nothing but barren, lifeless worlds in their wake.  Most tyranid broods are mindless killing machines whose actions are psychically controlled by synaptic link to the inscrutable and horrific hive mind; they are protected by chitinous exoskeletons and armed with teeth, talons, and biomorphic weaponry.

Tyranid Hormagant of Hive Fleet Cthonian

Orks (Sean Robson) are the most warlike alien race in the 41st millennium, and they adhere to single over-riding principle: the weak are ruled by the strong. There is no corner of the galaxy free of the ork menace - they roam the space ways in drifting hulks and fleets of Kill Cruisa's, looking for new worlds to conquer and dominate; they don't much care where they go as long as there is something to kill when they get there.  If the orks were ever to unite under a single banner they would over-run the galaxy with a green-skinned tide.

Ork Nob with prosthetic power-claw

I'll be posting periodic campaign synopses and battle reports detailing the struggle for control of Angelis Prime, which should be of interest to the participants at least, if no one else.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Art of Dungeoneering: Chapter II, Waging War

This is quite a long post because I've chosen to cover all of Chapter 2 at once.  This is quite a short chapter and is focussed upon the necessity of acting quickly to gain swift victory, which is necessary to maintain morale and ensure that supplies do not run out prematurely.

1. Generally, operations of war require one thousand fast four-horse chariots, one thousand four-horse wagons covered in leather, and one hundred thousand mailed troops.

Clearly, such requirements are fluid and depend upon circumstances, but whatever man-power your expedition requires don't forget the logistics to support them.  Each hireling in your party will also need to be fed, so be sure to bring enough food and drink to see them through the trip.  This will add up to a lot of provender for even a medium-sized expedition for  just a couple of weeks, so you may need to invest in a wagon train to carry food and equipment (not to mention transporting all your loot back to town) and the horses or mules will also need food and water.

2. When provisions are transported for a thousand li expenditures at home and in the field, stipends for the entertainment of advisers and visitors, the cost of materials such as glue and lacquer, and of chariots and armour, will amount to one thousand pieces of gold a day.  After this money is in hand, one hundred thousand troops may be raised.

Suffice it to say that there can a significant expense in properly equipping and outfitting an expedition, which might be beyond the means of low level adventurers to front.  At first level most characters don't even have enough cash to properly equip themselves with the weapons and armour they want, let alone hiring and equipping NPCs.  In a lot of cases, low level characters either forgo the proper preparations and tackle the dungeon with their own limited resources, or take a few odd jobs to raise cash before undertaking a dungeon expedition.  My current campaign began this way, with the characters checking the bounty board at the Flaming Faggot and rounding up notorious bandits for the reward money.  But if you're eager to hit the dungeon there is no reason to let limited funds delay the expedition.  Consider soliciting wealthy investors to supply the capital for the trip.  As expensive as outfitting an expedition is, it pales in comparison to the potential rewards and if you have a solid plan of attack there is no reason why a well-organized party couldn't convince wealthy patrons to front them the cash in exchange for a share in the profits.

3. Victory is the main object in war.  If this is long delayed, weapons are blunted and morale depressed.  When troops attack cities, their strength will be exhausted.

Delays in a campaign can certainly result in decreased morale as troops become bored and restless.  In military campaigns one's force can also suffer attrition due to sickness - how many soldier's died on Salisbury Plain while waiting around to be shipped to Europe?

But over and above considerations of morale, speed can be a valuable offensive tool.  Moving quickly can keep the opposition off balance, forcing them to attempt to react to your actions rather than giving them time to mount a counter-offensive of their own.  "Dungeon blitzing" is a strategy that I found to be especially effective in tournament play when time is also a factor.

While a dungeon blitz is a very effective offensive strategy there is a risk that your reach can overextend your grasp and it is important to keep an eye on your resources lest you find yourself pushing too far and leaving yourself vulnerable.  I am reminded of games of Risk when I went on huge offensives, conquering half the world in a turn, only to lose all of my gains the following turn when my opponent got reinforcements then rampaged through my strung-out army.  Likewise, rampaging through the Death Star, chasing stormtroopers worked really well for Han Solo until the stormtroopers turned around and realized that he was all alone.

Perhaps the best way to execute a dungeon blitz is to launch a limited fast assault on an area of the dungeon then consolidate your victory by resting and securing the area before commencing the next blitz.

4. When the army engages in protracted campaigns the resources of the state will not suffice.

Eventually, even the best-equipped party is going to need to resupply, and the bigger the dungeon, the more often supply runs will need to be made.  For this reason it is important to loot some treasure troves early on so that sufficient funds will be available to resupply and keep the expedition moving forward.

It is important to keep pressure on the dungeon denizens to prevent them from repopulating the areas that you've already cleared, so you may want to consider employing hirelings simply for the purpose of delivering supplies from town at a regular interval.  A supply line of food and ammunition can help you keep the offensive going and clear that level without having to reconquer previously held territory.

Sooner or later, though, the hirelings and probably even the PCs are going to want to hit town for some well-deserved R&R.  You may want to consider rotating the hirelings by giving some of them "leave" to go to town and unwind.  This is actually to your benefit.  Once a hireling gets gold in his purse, perhaps more money than he's ever had in his life, he might start to wonder if perhaps it's time to call it quits and retire with his riches.  Allowing your hirelings regular opportunities to gamble, drink, and whore will ensure that they will be back once they've blown their swag on the irresistible vices that towns have to offer.

5. When your weapons are dulled and ardour damped, your strength exhausted and treasure spent, neighbouring rulers will take advantage of your distress to act.  And even though you have wise counsellors, none will be able to lay good plans for the future.

Quit while you're ahead because the bad guys will always kick you when you're down.

6. Thus, while we have heard of blundering swiftness in war, we have not yet seen a clever operation that was prolonged.

Further to point 2.3, a bad plan that is swiftly and audaciously expedited will trump a brilliant scheme that never gets off the ground.

7. For there has never been a protracted war from which a country has benefited.

8. Thus those unable to understand the dangers inherent in employing troops are equally unable to understand the advantageous ways of doing so.

9. Those adept in waging war do not require a second levy of conscripts nor more than one provisioning.

I think this is Sun Tzu's way of re-emphasizing the need to plan ahead and bring everything you need for your campaign, then not waste your resources by dithering and delaying when action is called for.

10. They carry equipment from the homeland; they rely for provisions on the enemy.  Thus the army is plentifully provided with food.

I've never seen an adventuring party yet that didn't help themselves to the dungeon's armoury for resupplying themselves, nor break open the ubiquitous wine or beer casks that are invariably scattered around dungeons.  One does tend to shy away from the questionable provisions that orcs eat, but other than that using the dungeon itself to resupply your expedition is very efficient.  Your investors will applaud your frugality.

11. When a country is impoverished by military operations it is due to distant transportation; carriage of supplies for great distances renders the people destitute.

Clearly, the further your dungeon is from a town, settlement, or keep, the more difficult it will be to resupply.  For adventuring in remote locales it may be worth dedicating a party of hirelings solely to hunting and gathering food.

12. Where the army is, prices are high; when prices rise the wealth of the people is exhausted.  When wealth is exhausted the peasantry will be afflicted with urgent extractions.

Dungeon delving often results in economic inflation, particularly if a famous set of ruins or dungeons is drawing many groups of explorers.  Just like in gold rush towns in the 19th century where prospectors might expect to pay $1 for a single egg, the massive influx of treasure can wreak havoc on the local economy as merchants raise their prices to suit.  Not only must adventurers be prepared for inflated prices, but they might also be subject to hostility and resentment from the local populace who are no longer able to afford the inevitable price increases.  On the up side this might make it easier to recruit hirelings from among the locals, who have no other way of earning the kind of money they now need to live.

13. With strength thus depleted and wealth consumed the households in the central plains will be utterly impoverished and seven tenths of their wealth dissipated.

A small town can only support large numbers of dungeon expeditions for so long before the economy collapses entirely, destroying the settlement as effectively as a band of marauding orcs.  When the dungeon is finally cleared and the adventuring bands all move on they will leave nothing but a ghost town in their wake.

This is actually an intriguing idea and the aftermath of dungeoneering might make for some interesting spin off adventures.  What happens when large bands of hirelings are paid off at the end of the quest and have nothing left to return to but an impoverished and destitute community with no jobs.  Does the area now become infested with lawless bands of dungeon-hardened veterans turned road agents, bandits and highwaymen?

14. As to government expenditures, those due to broken-down chariots, worn out horses, armour and helmets, arrows and crossbows, lances, hand and body shields, draft animals and supply wagons will amount to sixty percent of the total.

15. Hence the wise general sees to it that his troops feed on the enemy, for one bushel of the enemy's provisions is equivalent to twenty of his; one hundredweight of enemy fodder to twenty hundredweight of his.

Once inflation afflicts the base town it might, indeed, be cheaper and easier to rely upon enemy provisions for resupply.

16. The reason troops slay the enemy is because they are enraged.

This statement seems out of place with the rest of the chapter and doesn't seem to belong.  Nonetheless, this advice could be used in two different ways.  When the morale of the hirelings is waning and they've lost the will to fight, arrange for the enemy to perform some sort of atrocity, such as the desecration of the corpses of their friends, that will inflame the men with the will to fight.

Likewise, if you wish to avoid prematurely provoking attack by enemies, be careful not to do anything to enrage them and make such a fight inevitable - don't go looting shrines unless you want to fight its guardians.  Conversely, if you wish to draw an enemy out to fight when and where you wish, consider performing some atrocity that will force them to act, preferably recklessly and without thought.

17. They take booty from the enemy because they desire wealth.

As previously discussed, the promise of loot, and the prospect of gaining even more loot, is the key to inspiring hirelings to fight.  Allow your hirelings to loot the bodies of the enemies that they slay - this will encourage them to fight all the harder in order to win more bonus loot.

18. Therefore, when in chariot fighting more than ten chariots are captured, reward those who take the first.  Replace the enemies flags and banners with your own, mix the captured chariots with yours, and mount them.

"Yeah, incentives are important.  I learned that in rehab."  - Captain Ron

Consider offering bonuses to hirelings for exemplary performance, such as whoever makes the first kill, whoever kills the most enemies, whoever finds the first trap, locates the secret treasure trove, etc.  This turns each and every hired hand into an active participant doing his very best instead of standing around with his thumb up his butt waiting to collect  his daily pay.

19. Treat captives well, and care for them.

This is something that I've seldom seen adventurers do.  I've seen captives threatened, bullied, tortured, and executed, but never treated well.  Doing so can pay dividends.  It may be possible to turn intelligent captives to your side, thereby gaining additional followers with insider knowledge.  Failing that it may be possible to exchange them for captives taken from your party members.

20. This is called 'winning a battle and becoming stronger.'

21. Hence what is essential in war is victory, not prolonged operations.  And therefore the general who understands war is the minister of the people's fate and arbiter of the nation's destiny.

This last statement nicely sums up the the major points of this chapter: execute your campaign expeditiously and gain swift victory.  Little can be gained by indecisiveness and delay.  It is almost always better to do something; doing anything, even if it is the wrong thing is better than doing nothing.  This way the enemy is forced to react to you rather than have leisure to make his own plans.

Next: Chapter III - Offensive Strategy.  So far we've talked broadly about the need to achieve victory.  Now we will begin to discuss how win that victory.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Hammer Studios Back in Action!

Fans of classic horror, rejoice!  Hammer Films is back after a 30 year hiatus.

Migilleto from The Grumpy Old Troll posted the news earlier this afternoon.  Here's the BBC News story.

This is exciting news, indeed, and I can only hope that the new Hammer movies have the same feel and emphasis on good story telling that the originals did.  After suffering through the spate of contemporary Hollywood suck-fests I'm craving some good old classic horror.

The Art of Dungeoneering: Chapter I, Estimates (part 2)

The second part of the chapter on planning deals with broad principles of strategy to be used when engaging the enemy.  This is an abrupt shift from the previously discussed factors of planning, but I believe that Sun Tzu included these forthcoming strategies in the Estimates chapter because they are universal in their utility and don't depend on variable circumstances that affect most strategies.

17. All warfare is based on deception.

I think this might be one reason why the Illusionist was one of my favourite classes when I was young.  Deception is a powerful tool, indeed; simple illusions can be more devastating than a fireball.

18. Therefore, when capable, feign incapacity; when active, inactivity.

19. When near, make it appear that you are far away; when far away, that you are near.

20. Offer the enemy a bait to lure him; feign disorder and strike him.

Two words: dancing lights - best spell ever.  There is no better way to trick dungeon denizens into thinking that your party is where it is not.  This can be great fun as you lure them into traps and ambushes.  If your magic user doesn't know dancing lights or if your rule system doesn't allow it, you might have to hand torches to some hirelings and sweet talk them into acting as distractions and monster bait.

21. When he concentrates, prepare against him; where he is strong, avoid him.

It should go without saying that it is unwise to charge into a large room full of orcs and try to fight them head on.  Likewise, it is best to avoid physical confrontations with creatures that are too powerful to be defeated by strength of arms.  If there is no need to defeat these foes try to circumvent them.  If they must be defeated, or possess such treasure to make defeating them worthwhile, try to devise a strategy that will play to your strengths and their weaknesses.

22. Anger his general and confuse him.

23. Pretend inferiority and encourage his arrogance.

I have an anecdote that illustrates this perfectly.  Several years ago I was running a campaign in which several groups of adventurers were competing to recover a lost artifact.  The PC's managed to retrieve it first in a remote locale, but as they were leaving they were confronted by a rival band led by an arrogant nobleman they had run afoul of before.  The rival band demanded the artifact or it would be taken by force.  The PCs were all 1st and 2nd level characters.  The rival band were around 6th level.

My friend, Warren, who was playing a fighter named Rothgar the Red, immediately realized that it would be impossible for PCs to win a pitched battle against such a high level party, but it would be possible, albeit unlikely, that he might be able to beat the nobleman in single combat.  This reasoning is akin to a gambler betting everything on a single roll of the dice.  If the odds are against you the more rolls you make the more likely you are to lose.

Rothgar used the nobleman's arrogance against him, goading him into a one-on-one fight for possession of the artifact and both parties agreed to abide by the outcome.  Now, a 2nd level fighter vs. a 6th level one is hardly a fair fight, but the gods favour the bold.  Rothgar made a couple of very lucky to hit rolls, including a critical, without being hit in return and managed to win the fight.  He quite literally snatched victory from the jaws of defeat by angering the rival leader and counting on his arrogance to make him overconfident and give up his unassailable advantage of numbers.  It worked spectacularly.

24. Keep him under strain and wear him down.

Simply put, don't allow the enemy to rest or get reinforcements.  Force them to expend resources until they are depleted.

Most of the strategies discussed here cut both ways, but none more so than this.  Probably the most practical use of this rule is making sure that it isn't employed against you.  If the denizens of a dungeon level are alert to your presence they can make life very difficult for you if you attempt to rest in the dungeon.  By launching attacks throughout the night they can ensure that the party cannot rest and therefore gain no natural healing, nor replenish spells.  This way they can gradually deplete the party's resources.  Once the PCs are low on hit points, out of spells, have used up all their healing potions and are starting to run low on ammunition their situation has become very grim and risk utter defeat.

For this reason it is usually best to retreat to the base camp to rest and resupply.  Here is where having NPC hirelings in reserve can really pay off.  They can guard you as you sleep and ensure that you are able to get a full night's rest before renewing the incursion.  The down side to retreating is that you take the risk that previously cleared areas of the dungeon might be reinforced, but better that than allowing yourselves to be worn down to the point where defeat is certain.

25. When he is united, divide him.

26. Attack where he is unprepared; sally out when he does not expect you.

As with line 1.21, do not attack a strong and unified enemy head on.  If you have to tackle that large room full of orcs, don't go charging in and face them all at once.  Try to draw them out and defeat them piecemeal rather than en mass.  When doing so it is important to have a good understanding of the layout of the dungeon so that the enemy doesn't turn the tables on your ambush by outflanking you and hitting you from several sides at once; scout the area and map it out prior to tackling that big room full of orcs.  Choose your line of retreat carefully and try to string your pursuers out so that they can be more easily defeated.

If, during your explorations, a dungeon level should be alerted to your presence and its denizens on guard against you, it would be foolhardy to continue.  To fight against a prepared and fore warned foe in their own lair is a tricky proposition, but there is no such thing as eternal vigilance, and even the best of troops will let their guard down after a time.  So, if the party finds itself arrayed against vigilant and prepared enemies, consider retreating for a few days and allow boredom to set in.  Consider, also, that many dungeon inhabitants are undisciplined rabble and will quickly lose interest in guard duty if not constantly supervised by their bosses.  How often have we caught goblin guards asleep, or drunk, at their posts?  Use this to your advantage.  Consider leaving some flasks of wine or choice bits of food behind when you retreat and you may not have to wait long at all to catch the blighters unawares.

27. These are the strategist's keys to victory.  It is not possible to discuss them beforehand.

It is impossible to plan for every contingency since you must often respond to unexpected enemy action, but try to keep these principles in mind and look for opportunities to employ them.

28. Now if the estimates made in the temple before hostilities indicate victory it is because calculations show one's strength to be superior to that of his enemy; if they indicate defeat, it is because calculations show that one is inferior.  With many calculations, one can win; with few one cannot.  How much less chance of victory has one who makes none at all!  By this means I examine the situation and the outcome will be clearly apparent.

Thus, Sun Tzu tells us, estimates are the most critical key to the success or failure of a dungeon expedition, and the outcome should be apparent before you ever leave the tavern.  As Archimedes once said, "give me lever long enough and a fulcrum upon which to place it and I shall move the world."  Your plans and estimates are your lever; your courage and will, the fulcrum.  If you have prepared thoroughly no dungeon should be beyond your means.

Thus ends Chapter I.  Next up, Chapter II: Waging War.