The Wasted Time – An Unusual RPG

Imagine you’re a kid in a city on the brink of war. It’s night and you’ve got a gun. You don’t know how to use it, but a couple of meters away, you glance a figure standing in the rain. He’s a criminal, he’s drunk and he has something you need to save the world. What do you do? Do you try to mug him? Will you shoot him? But watch out – he is armed and if you don’t succeed, he will get very angry…

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For a couple of months, me and K. had the pleasure of participating in what was perhaps the most unusual RPG I’ve played. A friend of ours and one of the members of our D&D group, Barbi Markovic, is an accomplished author. She also grew up in Belgrade in the 1990s during what became to be known as the Yugoslav Wars. Recently, Barbi had the idea to write a book about the world of her childhood and youth. The unusual thing is that in order to explore that world, she decided to make an RPG out of it.

We were part of one of the two groups playtesting that RPG. Rules-wise, Barbi used the mechanics of Tales from the Loop as a base. I’ve never played it before, but it worked quite well.

However, at the heart of this enterprise was the story. Barbi gave us a comprehensive introductory text, which delineated the social world we would inhabit as children and youths: the different subcultures and tribes, the ethics, codes and manners, as well as the hopes and fears that shaped the people living in the city during a violent and unstable time. Growing up in Austria in very sheltered circumstances, it kind of shocked me how alien this world felt, with its strange codes and casual violence.

Fortunately, not everything was bleak, as the story soon took a turn into the fantastic – we had to help repair a time machine whose malfunction caused us to be stuck in an unsteady loop, unable to escape the 90s. Barbi is an excellent game-master who managed to give us the impression that we could do whatever we liked without losing the story’s threads. The other players were also enthusiastic, full of ideas and a pleasure to play with. We experienced a roller-coaster ride of emotions, from tense and dramatic moments to banter and laughter.

In fact, the scene described above was one of the best RPG moments I’ve had in all my life. When we stumbled upon the main antagonist in the night, armed with a gun, suddenly everything was possible: We felt like we could end our quest there and then, but we also were afraid that if we failed, the consequences would be severe.

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In my experience, such moments of pure possibility are actually quite rare in RPGs. Sure, there are situations when things can go very well for the characters or they can go pear-shaped, meaning that characters die, but normally, the story is not fundamentally affected by that and everything is soon back on tracks. After all, the GM has spent lots of time preparing and is invested in the story. It takes a very good GM to really go with the dynamics of the situation and to make space for moments when everything is possible.

I’m glad that I had the opportunity to take part in Barbi’s collective memorial work. At the end of her project, she will publish a novel and an RPG book. I’ll let you know as soon as they are out!

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Wall’s Bridge Revisited

Almost two years ago, I played a Sharp Practice scenario from Grierson’s raid. While a fun game, the scenario suffered from several issues. The publication of a new book on the raid by Timothy Smith prompted me to revisit the scenario.

My staunch Sharp Practice opponent Sigur took the Confederate defenders (and he also took the pictures), while I played the Union attackers. Last time, one of the problems was balance: the Union is equipped with breech-loading carbines, which offer a severe advantage in firefights. I wanted to keep the technical superiority of the Union, while also taking into account the state of their troops: at that moment, they had been in the saddle for almost two weeks, moving hundreds of miles through enemy territory. They were exhausted, but had to act quick and decisively, as large numbers of Confederate troops were hot on their heels.

Therefore, I introduced two special rules:

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The idea behind the Exhausted special rule was to skew the distribution of random events a bit in the direction of the Union, thereby modeling their exhaustion and proneness to making mistakes. The turn clock should put the Union player under pressure and force him to make quick decisions, even if not all of his troops were immediately available.

Similar to last game, the scenario started with the Union “butternut guerrillas” (scouts) leaderless on the far side of Tickfaw River, as they had run into a Confederate ambush.

 

I decided to keep them there and exchange shots with the Confederate skirmishers while I moved my first two groups of cavalry to my left flank. There, they dismounted and waded through the river, taking up position on the far side. Unfortunately, their Leader had some difficulties keeping up and ended up on the other side – a mistake that would cost him dearly…

earlygame repeaters line up

Sigur meanwhile hurried his infantry to counter my troopers. He soon came under fire from the breech-loading carbines, which hurt him pretty badly. However, he managed to form line and gave back in kind – a controlled volley from close distance thinned the ranks of my troopers.

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To make matters worse, Sigur had advanced the rest of his men down the road. Some took position on the bridge and peppered my dismounted cavalry from behind. Not content with such impunity, he crossed the river and sneaked up on my boys from behind. Before he knew what had happened, my cavalry Leader was taken prisoner!

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This did not bode well. The cavalry on the river banks were now in a very bad position. I managed to get in the reinforcements, one group of which I sent to the river to relief the pinned troopers while the other galloped helter-skelter along the road to take the Confederate deployment point and threaten his line from behind.

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Alas, too late! My Force Morale plummeted and I conceded when it was at 2 (against Sigur’s 7).

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Congratulations to the plucky defenders, which held their ground against the odds!

This was a fun game, with Sigur acting bold and outmaneuvering me completely. The scenario tweaks also worked ok. I think the turn clock contained too many steps – I would skip the reduction of Command Cards, but would reduce the number it takes to end the game to 46. Turn clocks are always a difficult thing in Sharp Practice, as the turn lengths are so variable, but it did achieve the effect of conveying a sense of pressure.

Building a Wizard’s Tower

One of the scenarios in the Sellswords & Spellslingers book demands a wizard’s tower. While there are several available to buy (from the plain Ziterdes keep to the formidable Tabletop World spire), I decided to scratch build my own.

The starting point was a box of pringles. I glued it unto another cardboard roll to, as I wanted to have it protrude from a rocky outcrop. The basis was provided by an old single record.

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For the rocky outcrop, I used blue foam and chunks of tree bark. The basis for a small secondary tower was formed by an empty toilet roll.

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The next step was to fill the holes and cracks with modelling clay (of the air-drying kind) and filler. I also made adoor for the small tower was made out of wood and a parapet for the top platform.

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I then added some details. First, cardboard brickwork to break up the surface of the tower. Second, an oriel made from yet another cardboard roll. Third, the door and windows. I bought those from Thomarillion, as I didn’t trust myself to scratch build nice enough ones. And last, I made protrusions beneath the parapet. They will later carry the Gargoyles, which I also ordered from Thomarillion.

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I then started to cover the whole structure with DAS air-drying modelling clay, an idea I got from Tony Harwood, who regularly uses this technique with great success.

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Before applying the modelling clay, I covered the surface with PVA glue, as the clay shrinks and may otherwise come off when dry. Looking good so far!

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The roofs were made out of cardboard cones, with small bits of cardboard for the tiles. This is a boring and mind-numbing work, but fortunately I’m used to it from other project and those roofs were actually rather small in comparison to some others I’ve made. The base was covered with sand and grit and PVA glue.

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Now there was only the painting to be done… and, after a couple of days, I had my final result – the wizard’s tower!

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Booknotes – Science Fiction & Fantasy

I’ve recently finished reading one of the best fantasy series I’ve come across lately: Jon Skovron’s Empire of the Storms trilogy.

skovronStarting with Hope and Red, it tells the story of two people, a girl who grows up to be a fearsome warrior and a boy who becomes a thief. However, what could easily have become a cliché-ridden ‘team becoming couple’-story develops into a much more exciting thing. The books are set in an interesting world, namely an Empire made up of islands in a vast ocean. This alone is great, as I love nautical fantasy (and I have to admit that this was the reason I got the book in the first place). But if I came for the ships, I stayed for the characters: Skovron introduces a plethora of compelling and complex characters. Each of them has his or her own motivation and, most importantly of all, they all change and develop as things happen to them. Best of all, the changes within the characters actually drive the story and define the stakes – which, in a way, become higher than in most other fantasy novels. Highly recommended!

220px-the_lost_fleet_dauntlessI also finished another series, the reading of which was a sort of guilty pleasure. I’m talking about Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet. Clocking in at eleven volumes, this military sci-fi soap opera had a strange pull – as soon as I finished a volume, I wanted to read the next one. It’s not that the books are especially gripping per se, and several times when I was halfway through one I decided that this would be the last. However, Campbell has what could be called an economical way of storytelling: there is lots of repetition, but in the end there are just enough new developments that I became curious how the overall plot would work out. And, for being military sci-fi, it is refreshingly free from the trashy right-wing ideology often found in this genre. Recommended if you like space battles mixed with a dose of exploration and romance.

artarcanaFor Christmas, I got myself the new history of Dungeons & Dragons, Art and Arcana: A Visual History. This is a huge coffee-table book full of spectacular artwork from all editions of D&D. The accompanying text was co-authored by Jon Peterson, who is the authority on the history of role-playing games. What I like about Art and Arcanais that it not only covers Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson and the coming-into-being of D&D – something that has already been the subject of several books – but that it delves deeply into the evolution of the game through different editions and settings. If you are a fan of D&D, give yourself a treat and get this book!

blAs I write this, I’m halfway through Nicholas Eames’ Bloody Rose, the sequel to his fabulous Kings of the Wyld. I started with some trepidation, as I really loved the first book, but was unsure how sustainable the analogy between fantasy adventurers and rock bands would be. However, Eames manages to weave an engaging story around Fable, the band led by Rose, the daughter of one of the lead characters of the first book. Again, there are great characters and as the story develops, we get a much more nuanced perspective on the world, especially on the monsters that hitherto served only as the backdrop and cannon fodder for the exploits of the bands. And now some really wild things happened and how will they get out of this and sorry I have to get back to the book…