North Star 2019 report

Our second North Star, a convention born of an impulse decision after a conversation between Graham and I about TravCon, provided a great weekend of gaming. After a pretty frantic Friday completing my game preparation as a result of game changes in the last two weeks, I rolled into the Garrison around 9am on Saturday to find that my co-conspirator Graham had already set the room up. I only needed to get the badges out and the signs up before we started. Like Revelation, North Star has a very relaxed feel compared to the start of Furnace. It’s probably the difference of thirty-five people instead of seventy-five.

My first game was Space 1889 run by Paul Mitchener. I’ve loved this setting for a long time, but never really got it to the table so the opportunity to play was something that I jumped at. This was my first visit to Venus, and it was by Zeppelin, piloted by my young blonde German inventor, Lena. Keary was playing the explorer who owned the airship, and we naughtily added some suggestive shenanigans into the game. Of course, he was my ‘Uncle’! We quickly encountered a flyer working using Martian lift-wood technology (something which shouldn’t work, and indeed is one of the reasons the British aren’t in control of the planet). This moved to attack us; they failed, naturally and we ended up in a search for the source of the lift-wood and also the crew of another Zeppelin who were going to be forced to fight for their lives in a gladiatorial arena in a hidden city. We managed to succeed with some derring-do and had a lot of fun. It ended with us setting up a tri-partite company to exploit the new technology as good Imperialists do. I enjoyed the setting, the game and the player’s take on the characters. I’d definitely like to look at this again. Shout out to Paul, who was one of our hero GMs, running three slots.

Morrisons for lunch, with an uninspiring feta salad.

Slot 2 brought Chitter, a game set in the Skyrealms of Jorune universe using Genesys run by Richard Talbot, one of my fellow BITS colleagues. I’d read Jorune years ago but had never got to the point of playing or running it. I’d also never gone anywhere near Genesys in any of its forms, so this was a real voyage of discovery for me. The adventure had a vibe of films like ‘Southern Comfort’ or ‘Deliverance’. We were a militia patrol sent into the deep forest to try and find out what was killing all our livestock. Our ragtag group consisted of a pure-strain human and most of the hybrid creatures from the human geneering programme. We managed to establish a good relationship with the locals quite quickly, and soon set off in pursuit of the cause of the trouble. My Bron (a Bear hybrid) was the squad leader and had to pull our dysfunctional and rag-tag band together. Somehow, we did it all by the numbers and managed to succeed at the plot. I found that Genesys worked well enough, but I’m not sure why I’d use it over other games. Jorune was interesting, and Richard had prepared a rich and interesting scenario for us. Richard was also one of our hero GMs, running three games back-to-back.

Dinner was the traditional trip to KFC with Keary and John.

The evening slot was my first game, Plausible Deniability. This was a Traveller scenario which I’d previously tested at TravCon 2018. It is built around the player characters signing up as the crew of a Type T Patrol Cruiser deployed as a deniable privateer asset by the Imperium. It built upon the Letter of Marque supplement, and I introduced some elements of troupe play so the whole command crew didn’t end up on every mission. There was much privateering fun and a scramble for funds to keep the ship aloft. The crew were dysfunctional (well, they were pirates!). Tom and Andy did a grand job of ripping everyone off. Fil brilliantly played the noble and owner-on-board whose ‘Daddy had bought me this ship”. The players did really well and met the scenario objectives in a far more direct manner than I expected. There were some comments that it felt like the start of a campaign; these nailed it as the scenario was designed as the pilot/introduction to a campaign. I enjoyed this and need to develop it a bit further. I think my GMing was okay for this game, but tiredness was starting to show.

A visit to the bar, followed by rather a late one catching up with Neil McGurk and drinking some of the bottle of Jura that I had brought with me. We called it a day at 2am.

The next morning started too early when I got a text at 6.50am from my eldest’s football coach wishing him luck in the match that he had that day. A little too early on a Sunday, I think!

Garrison breakfast with the Baldowskis and Graham, and then we were off again for Day 2.

Slot 4 had me playing Valkyrie Nine, Paul Baldowski’s fun SF horror using the Cthulhu Hack. Having subsequently bought and read the book, I am surprised how well we managed to stumble around in our guise as the moonbase’s robots missing most of the clues yet managing to come out with a positive solution. Of course, we all died, but not before my bot achieved self-awareness and insanity. Great group of players and much fun was had. I really enjoyed myself, and Paul didn’t seem too jaded to be running it for the second slot in a row. He had kindly stepped up as a hero GM to fill a gap when one of the other GMs pulled out of the convention at short notice.

Lunch was an okay Chicken Salad from Morrisons. Quick preparation for the raffle, which went well. As usual, I managed not to win anything.

Slot 5 was the game that had been both filling me with anticipation and terror in the run-up, a playtest of Blue Planet: Recontact with the scenario Trouble in Paradise. The scenario is the kick off for one of the campaign frames in the game. The characters are all part of Red Sky Charters, a family business already struggling to make ends meet. The game opens in media res, with the characters kidnapped by a group of Russian mobsters. It worked really well and the players just went through it. We all had a learning curve to do with the game, but the setting worked for people familiar with all the previous material and for those that had never seen it before. The players were awesome and it felt like the opening of a TV series. I’d have loved to have run a follow up with the same group. I’m pleased with how I GMd this. I was enthused and full of energy mostly. I will do this again. Big thanks to Alison, Tilly, Paul, Dr Bob and Neil for making this such good fun.

And then it was all over. Graham had already left, and by the time I departed around 6.30pm, the last group was coming to a close. It worked well enough that we’re going to do it all again in 2020 over the weekend of 9th/10th May.

14 May 2019


The stuff of nightmares...


Alien - The Roleplaying Game Trailer from Free League on Vimeo.

One of my favourite SF franchises is coming as an RPG from a company whose work I like. The artwork here is fantastic. I suspect this is going to be really popular at cons.

The One Ring - End of Season 7

The One Ring image - By Xander - own work, (not derivative from the movies), Public Domain,
We finished Season 7 of our The One Ring RPG 'The Darkening of Mirkwood' inspired campaign tonight, brilliantly run by Paul.

(minor spoilers for The Darkening of Mirkwood follow)

This season saw our final confrontation with the Gibbet King, our nemesis since the early days. We managed to rally the Beornings after the disruption of Beorn's ascension with the Hunter and slay the Gibbet King's body. A hard autumn passage over the Misty Mountains got us to Rivendell for the winter, where we were happy to meet Elrond again.

After a short respite, we travelled to the Barrow Downs, unearthing a barrow to find a blade capable of destroying our enemy permanently. The wights inhabiting it were destroyed, and we headed north to Bree, and then to Fornost Erain and the North Downs. A hard passage across Angmar took us to Carn Dum, which we entered through tunnels that our new Noldor companion remembered of old. We penetrated the inner sanctum, dispelling wraiths and destroying the Gibbet King permanently as he manifested in a new body.

Fleeing, we quickly built a significant lead on the pursuing orc forces, but two of the fellowship nearly fell when we foolhardily attacked an orc patrol. We found evidence that the Enemy was coordinating with Angmar. Fortunately we prevailed, and rendezvoused with the Rangers, and then helped them destroy the orc forces.

We rest for the winter in Rivendell, awaiting our return to the east of the Misty Mountains. My Dwarf yearns for Erebor as it is more than two years since I was last home.

Our campaign will return.

1) Eyes of Sauron are nasty
2) Once you drop endurance below fatigue there's a potential death spiral as you drop equipment to avoid being weary.
3) We always felt threatened, despite having characters that are very highly developed.
4) It is fantastic to play an extended campaign in a world we love.
5) Bringing in a Noldor elf with an developed party works really well.
6) Jag, Elina and Simon are brilliant players who make this something I really look forward to.

Ice Cold in Arrendale - an OSR scenario

A properly nasty film.

I've always liked Disney's Frozen because it's a properly nasty and dangerous fairy tale wrapped in fluff. Parents die, nobles scheme, uncontrolled magic, and a false lover coming between sisters, all wrapped in happy songs and comedy from Olaf and Sven. For a while (maybe six months) it was the youngest lad's favourite film (until his 6-year-old friends told him it wasn't cool).

But it had me thinking, "What if"?

In the end, back in 2017 I wrote a scenario for Heroic Fantasy (Graham Spearing's more complete hack of the Black Hack) and ran it at Furnace XII. I can't see myself publishing this any time soon - and indeed, it'd need a bit of work to protect me from litigious mice, so here's a Google Docs link to the file. It should easily be usable with other OSR clones or plain D&D.

Ice Cold in Arrendale (Google Docs, Comments enabled)

Feel free to make any notes in comments if you should run it.

Here are the six characters I created for the convention. Three are a party from Britannia, sent to set up trade agreements and find out what is causing this damnable weather, and the other three are a party from the Southern Isle sent to find out why the King's youngest son, Prince Hans, has not returned for six months. All the characters have one aspect left for the player to allocate and are gender non-specific.

Ice Cold in Arrendale Characters (Google Drive, PDF, 2MB)

It's fair to say that when I ran it I had imagery from The Golden Compass, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Where Eagles Dare and parts of The Hateful Eight in my mind. The broader area of the seting is a point crawl sandbox in the nature of Slumbering Ursine Dunes.

I'd love to have your feedback for this!

19 April 2019


Murder with the Family

Murder at Devil Pines
Murder at Devil Pines: Perhaps the killer's here?
We travelled down to Portishead this weekend to see my parents. The boys had fun catching up with their grandparents and running remote-controlled boats on the lake. We got back after dinner and had some nice cake (a combination of birthdays, Easter coming up and belated Mother's Day) and then the boardgames came out.

We had a number of increasingly cutthroat games of Kartel during which it was a pleasure to see the youngest's mathematical ruthless streak coming out. After that, we tried Murder at Devil Pines, which is a short semi-cooperative memory-game based X-Files style investigation for 3 or 4 players.

The game is played over 6 turns (maximum), where each player gets a go at investigating the mystery. There are shades of Cluedo here. There are a set of clues for the way the missing person has been murdered (you get to find them and the method), a set of clues for who is leading the evil cult, and a set of clues for the evil creature which has been summoned.

There are five of each clue type; four are put in a lead deck for that clue type, and one is randomly selected as a 'mystery card'. On your turn, you get to investigate (by picking up a dice of the relevant investigation skill number and rolling equal-to or over the 'heat' number (the round number). Each successful roll lets you look at a card from the lead deck for that die colour. Thus you eliminate the potential leads. The cards are returned and shuffled so you can't guarantee that you'll not get the same leads again.

If you are certain what the clue chain has got you to in eliminating leads, you can 'call it in'; if you are successful, this will get you benefits (equipment, extra dice) but failure could (in the worst case) take you out of the game.

You can also wait around for a random mail-order delivery of equipment (most of which amends dice rolls or allows a different set of dice to be used).

In certain situations, you may have to do a raid (for example) against the monster of the week when that is revealed. This involves a combination of the different dice pools. Ultimately, to defeat the creature you will need as many successes as there are players so it could take several attempts.

We succeeded through a combination of Aidan's observation and Nathan's writing it all down process!
Overall, I enjoyed it but I don't think that we got the best out of it. We did have a good time.

It was the first playthrough and some boardgame conventions (like rotating the first player) messed with people's heads a bit. The escalating difficulty (which worked well) and the added complexity for raids confused a bit. The fixed-movement (up to 3 spaces) also caused confusion as some of the players expected a die roll. The rules have everything you need, but I think a crib-sheet is needed and a clearer statement of the Raid action. Nathan and I would play it again, Aidan is a maybe and Jill doesn't see the point beyond Cluedo (but she's a great fan of that game).

The board looks lovely and is evocative of the feel for the game. It plays in under 20 minutes. Worth a look if you can find it.

Murder at Devil Pines
Posing with his Grandma with the investigation log!

Earlier on, I said it was semi-cooperative. You all win or lose by defeating the monster-of-the-week. However, the rules as written give all the players a conspiracy card, each of which has a symbol related to the method of death, the cult leader and the monster. If two of these symbols align, you win by stopping the other players winning. We didn't use this as it would just add complexity for the first outing. In most sessions, everyone will be working together.

13 April 2019
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Thoughts on the Maus

Maus (World of Tanks Blitz)
Panzer VIII Maus in Legionary Camouflage

One of my guilty pleasures is playing World of Tanks Blitz on the iPad to chill out. Nathan and I started an account back at Christmas 2014, and we've played far too many games since. I don't do many video games, but this one has stuck. I find that it's got a great combination of being a game you can play for fun and also a bit more seriously. You have teams of 7 players facing themselves off across a variety of different maps. You can platoon with one other person if you want to work as a sub-team. All the tanks are pretty unique with different play styles. The game has vehicles from the start of armoured warfare to the 1960s. The tanks range from actual vehicles to prototypes (either built or blueprinted) to pure fantasy tanks (we hates those, my precious). I'll never be a great player (I don't have the reflexes), but I know from game stats that I'm an above-average player.

I've recently been grinding crew experience on the Maus. The Maus was a super-heavy panzer designed in 1944 which got as far as part-built prototype hulls and a turret. In some ways, the Nazis were lucky that it never reached production as it would have been an absolute resource hog and easily flanked by more mobile forces. However, on a 500m x 500m battlefield it does quite well.

I've learned a few things playing it. I'm not great at this tank, but some things become obvious.

1. Wait and see where your team goes at the start before you move. At 20 km/h you can't afford to go the wrong way.

2. Never look an enemy in the face until you mean to shoot them (because your armour is stronger when angled).

3. The damage you block, and as a result stop your team taking, is more important than the damage you do. You can block a lot as you are one of the most heavily armoured tanks in the game.

4. You can easily pin a flank as the enemy don't like approaching you (albeit cheeky medium tanks will try and circle you).

5. If you're going to die, position yourself so your wreck gives your team hardcover, not the enemy.

6. Don't get stressed; like the American T95 tank destroyer (the 'doom turtle') you're slow to get to position and half the time the rest of the team forgets that or screws things up by splitting up so you are alone. You can only do what you can do.

7. Consider the terrain and run on roads if you can as you are faster and can turn better.

8. The gun is good enough for snapshots as it aims quickly. This helps you when you look away to improve the armour and then flick it in to take a shot.

I ended up putting the Legionary camouflage on the tank (named after the European winners of the Blitz Twister Cup in 2017) as it looks great.

8 April 2019

Kartel - breaking the Crime Ring

Kartel - it's very long and thin...
I picked up a copy of Kartel from Games Crusade in Harrogate, and we've played it a few times this week. I think it's going to be one that stays around for a bit. Written by Reiner Knizia, it's a simple game that takes about 15 minutes and is suitable for all the family.

You are all playing detectives investigating the seven criminal gangs in the city. There is a single large detective meeple (with a sticker) used by all the players. The game board comprises a ring (the 'crime ring') of randomly spread out crime lords (each with a unique colour), criminals (groups of 1-3, each coloured for the crime lord they have allegiance to) and potential bribes (sorry, donations to the police widows and orphans fund).

Each turn, you roll a d6 which generates a result between 2 and 4. You advance the detective as far as you want up to the number rolled around the crime ring, and then pick up what you have landed on. If it is a bribe or a criminal group, you place it in front of you as a potential arrest or payoff. If it is a crime lord, they go to jail. From that point, all the criminals that are in the same gang (same colour) are flipped to the scoring side when you pick them up. Any you have in front of you already, also get flipped as you've now got the evidence to arrest them. Any bribes from an arrested crime lord become worthless rather than scoring three points.

There's a catch; there are only five cells in the jail, and the moment that the last one is filled, the game ends (with any criminals from that crime lord now scoring). You get a point for every criminal arrested and 3 points for each bribe from a crime lord who hasn't been arrested at the end of the game.

It's a good game, with a degree of scheming and planning, and it works well as a filler. It certainly landed well with us across the family. Recommended.

6 April 2019

Board game breakfast
Boardgame breakfast - Kartel went down well with the whole family

Chromebooks and Hangouts and Gaming

Lenovo N23 Yoga Chromebook in all its modes
Most of my gaming these days is either done at conventions or over Google Hangouts (where I'm playing in two extended campaigns[1] with friends I met at conventions).

We had a lot of shenanigans with this week's Esoterrorists session, with a period where people couldn't hear each other. We eventually resolved it (or rather it may have resolved itself at Hangouts end) but before we reached that point at least two of us changed machines.

I tried my Chromebook (a Lenovo Yoga N23 which runs on a quad-core ARM processor) with some trepidation. My old Chromebook (a Lenovo N22) had really struggled, but it seems that the beefier processor and jump of system RAM to 4GB does the trick. It was probably better than my MacBook (although that has an excuse being over 10 years old).

The Chromebook is definitely hitting 80% of what I do on a computer. I'd have a Mac in preference, but I'm not rocking Apple money at the moment, especially after the pound/dollar depreciation following the Brexit vote. I definitely recommend this machine if you'd like a convertible with a decent screen, good battery life and a great keyboard.

29 March 2019

[1] The Esoterrorists (Worldbreaker) and The One Ring (Darkening of Mirkwood)

Deep Sea Adventure

Deep Sea Adventure Box
Deep Sea Adventure, a small boxed game
A fortnight ago, I went into Harrogate with Nathan to get him some new trainers for fencing, and once we'd finished that errand, we popped into Games Crusade, a local boardgame shop near the theatre at the centre of town.

Nathan picked two games - Cat Crimes and Deep Sea Adventure. We tried both out while we were away.

Deep Sea Adventure contains a submarine template, an air tracking counter, meeples for divers and a selection of ruins (potential treasure) and blanks. The players share an air supply which starts to deteriorate once ruins (treasure) is picked up. Each item of treasure costs a point of air each turn, and you only have 25 total.

The game is simple and played in three rounds.

Each player takes a turn as follows; decide direction of travel, decrease air by number of treasures carried, roll 2d3, move that far, chose to pick up a treasure up to the maximum, or drop one down. Each treasure also reduces your dice roll by one, so six would mean you can't move.

The treasure counters are set in long path, getting deeper (further from the sub) each time. More valuable treasures are lower down.

Players take turns until they run out of air (in which case all carried treasures are dropped) or they're all back on the sub, at which point the round ends. Treasures brought back are scored, and the player with the highest amount is the winner at the end of all three rounds.

It was quite good fun - I realised that a Traveller GM at last years Travcon had used a riff on this in an asteroid adventure. I think we'll be playing it again as it landed well with the whole family.

Oh, you should visit Games Crusade if you get a chance, they're knowledgeable friendly people.

25 March 2019

Back to Middle Earth (The One Ring Season 7)

The One Ring image - By Xander - own work, (not derivative from the movies), Public Domain,

Tonight saw a return to our ongoing Google Hangouts game of The One Ring RPG, run by Paul Mitchener. We've been playing for a number of years now, and this is the 'seventh season' if we looked at it as a TV show. It certainly has that kind of feel and reminds me of what I love about campaign play. I think that it's the longest ongoing campaign that I've been involved with, certainly since I was a teenager. The plots have been based loosely around the Darkening of Mirkwood supplement. Our characters have grown; there is a core group of three characters who have been there from the start, and a number of others who have passed through our Tale of Years. Paul has written up the background so far on his personal blog here and there's really nothing more I can add to that except that it is deeply satisfying to drop back into this.

The core comprises my character; Nali, a Dwarf from the Lonely Mountain; Elina's character Aeldra, one of the Woodland Folk; and Miriel, a Wood Elf played by Jag, with whom Nali always argues. Tonight, we were joined by Simon R, playing a High Elf from Rivendell, and the deep long term perspective of one of the firstborn immediately changed the dynamics again, in a good way.

The story and the characters grow; one day our heroes will fall out of the tale, but along the way, they've told a wonderful story and held a candle up against the darkness.