Sunday, May 31, 2015

Taking A Break: Minis Post

On Drink Spin Run, I've been talking about painting minis and wargames and such, but I never seem to mention them here on the blog. Strange. So, I figured I'd post some pics of the minis I've been up to and what I'm planning on using them for.

I make no secret that I'm a big fan of the Oldhammer editions of Warhammer and WH40K: 3rd edition of WHFB and the first (Rogue Trader) edition of WH40K. I finally picked up a copy of Realms of Chaos: Slaves to Darkness last year and have been kicking around a bunch of Oldhammer ideas since then. This, naturally, led to the Chaos warband idea implicit in RoC, which blended with my natural "hey, let's make stuff up" urge and I started a King in Yellow-themed warband. I mean, if Hastur can't be a Chaos Lord, who can? I finished my first five Chaos marauders a little bit ago and they're ready to be overcoated. Here's a few of them.

I've also got a sorcerer and a Chaos warrior on the painting table right now, both needing a small amount of detail work before they're done.

The other stuff that's finished and pending the finishing touch of an overcoat are two of figs I bought from Red Box minis (from their vikings personalities KickStarter) to represent two of the main PCs in my Iron Coast game. First, we have +Matt Woodard's PC Artur, an Iskurlander cleric of Stirkur. Typically, Artur uses a battle axe, and this guy has a two-handed warhammer, but other than that, this mini is just about perfect. I freaking love the trucker 'stache on this dude.

Next we have +Jeff Cambers's PC, Cassius, (though it may be spelled with a "k," I'm not sure), an Iskurlandik barbarian and future longship captain. This guy has more of a "viking Conan" feel, which is (a) deliberate and (b) more representative of how Jeff plays the guy than any explicit statements.

Two more Iron Coast PCs who are really close to coming off the painting table are +Andy Block's elven courtier, Lippu (left), and +Mark Donkers's elven spellsword, Aesl'n (right). These gents need a little more detail work before they're ready, but they're close. You'll notice that Aesl'n has more of a traditionally drow-ish coloration, but since we don't have drow in the world of Ore (at least, nothing that's explicitly a drow), Mark did what was natural and appropriated a color scheme that he liked for his character. Lippu, on the other hand, was more of an attempt to make him look like the "elf Bowie" I envision him as. (These minis are both from the Reaper Bones II product line.)

We don't use minis much in the Iron Coast game, so there's been some confusion about why these minis exist. I'm prepping to kick the ACKS campaign into the Conqueror phase, which is probably going to mean using the Domains At War supplement to go to war against Sakriskyn's neighbors. While the bulk of the troops will be old fashioned rank and file whatevs, the PCs will clearly be present on the battlefield as commanders of units, awesome magic artillery support, that kind of thing.

Speaking of the rank & file, I got started with the Red Box minis because I wanted personalities/heroes/leaders/whatever for an Oldhammer Norse army. At the time, I figured I could get double-duty out of rank & file from such an army using them for both Oldhammer and Domains at War. So, I bought some Wargames Factory viking huscarls with a vision for how I wanted this new Oldhammer Norse army to shape up (then, after I started crunching numbers on a Norse army, I realized that I had WAY too many huscarls and needed some lighter troops so I bought a box of Wargames Factory's viking bondi). While I assembled them pretty much right away (and did a little bit of conversion work from ye olde bits box), I didn't get around to painting them for quite some time. With my recent spate of painting, I finally started these dudes and since they're not a ton of fun to paint, it's been slow going.

I've been using these guys as a kind of warm up when getting ready to paint things that are a little more fun, just like I mentioned yesterday on G+ in a conversation with +Ripley Stonebrook. Actually, that conversation, along with the torrential rain we had here in Ypsi and the cancellation of our Saturday night Stormbringer game (and painful postponement until 6/13!) conspired to inspire a long painting session last night (these pics are from about 2 hours into that session). One thing I wish I'd done with these plastic minis is to go the route we used to see in the pages of White Dwarf and paint the shields separate from the bodies. Since I have a whole box of viking bondi that I haven't finished assembling, I'm looking forward to giving the tried-and-true White Dwarf method a shot.

There's one more Iron Coast mini that's nearing completion, and it's +Paul Linkowski's thief, Oosh. While I have lots of commentary on Oosh as a character, let me talk about Oosh the miniature. This is another Reaper Bones II fig, and I have to say I take exception with how they made the mold for this dude. The mold line runs right down the middle of his face. No joke. You can see it right there. Sure, I can clean up mold lines (I prefer not to), but I can do it. On metal, at least. This Bones material is so soft that it's really, really hard to clean up mold lines without gouging out huge rents in poor Oosh's face. Further, it seems like many fine details from the metal version of this fig get washed out in the Bones version, making Oosh's face a fairly featureless blob... with a mold line in the middle.

This pic also features a few other things that I've talked about recently. Next to Oosh (on your left), you can see the Chaos sorcerer I mentioned above when I was talking about the Chaos warband. You'll also notice a whole mess of gnolls. A little bit ago on Drink Spin Run, Donn & I announced a DSR mini painting... club? Basically, we proposed that we'd all paint the same mini, finish it off within a month and then show our work on the podcast's website. I took the opportunity to paint all of the gnolls that came in the Bones II set which should have been more fun than it has been. Yes, these dudes are big and chunky and should be fun, but the Bones material isn't the most fun to work with. I've had some problems with primer sticking to them (the gnolls specifically; I haven't had as much of a problem with the elves or the thief or the beholder I did a while back), but that could be a function of any number of things. Speaking of the DSR mini "non-competition," here's the dude we agreed on for our first subject:

He's looking okay, but he needs some serious detail work. That work is sort of stymieing me (sp?), though. I don't know where to begin on some it. I think it's going to be one of those times where I just try a bunch of stuff and go with what I like the most. I need to darken up this dude's face to make him a little more hyena-looking (I have a specific preference for the striped hyena rather than the spotted hyena, so I'm working on some dark stripes in the "mane"). Right now, this guy has a feeling of one of those WizKids D&D minis (not the crappy WotC ones): the paint job is alright, it just feels lazy.

Before I go, there's one last thing that I want to share. I little while back, I picked up some Chaos warriors from eBay that were listed as "Citadel preslotta Chaos Warrior" but I couldn't really identify them as such, but it's not like I did a lot of research. They were a good price, the models looked cool, so I bought. They looked like the kind of mins that would be fun to paint. They didn't exactly have a very Citadel feel, but much of my Citadel experience is from the later era, so they might just be from a modeller who I'm not familiar with. The faces on these dudes have a distinct and different feel, which kind of excites me. When I got these guys, I got five in a package, and three of the five were missing blades to their weapons. One had a haft but was missing an axe blade, something that's easy enough for me to replace with bits, so I pinned and glued one on and set about putting him with the other two axe-wielders and primed them up. This pic probably won't tell you much but here it is:

I mention these guys because they're the first minis in years that I've primed via a brush. I watched a video a little while ago that recommended brush priming because it helps you learn the contours and textures of a figure while doing something essential to the painting process. That logic stuck with me, if only because I really hate those spots you miss when you prime with a rattlecan. The experience of brush priming these guys was okay, it accomplished what that video promised, but it made priming the textured base kind of tough. What priming in this manner really did was make me eager to get an airbrush. But we're a long way off from airbrush territory...

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Dynamic Hexcrawl Required Reading: An Echo Resounding

For this next "required reading" post, I'm going to eschew historical context and talk about a modern resource that I think does a great job of handling the hexcrawl: Kevin Crawford's An Echo, Resounding: Lordship and War in Untamed Lands for the Labyrinth Lord system. These days, it's hard to find an Old School-positive individual who's not familiar with Crawford's work, but if you're not, here's the deal: Kevin is probably most famous for his Stars Without Number and Other Dust RPGs, but what he does is adapt old school rules to different sorts of genres with minimal modification from a basic LL-powered chassis (SWN is pretty much LL in space whereas OD is a hard scifi post-apoc LL). Sure, he's famous for some of the bigger coups of his career (like releasing all of the art from his last three successfully Kickstarted RPGs to the public domain -- or is it open source? I don't know, I should probably check it out), but to me the big thing that he's done is this: by using some simple natural-language descriptors (he calls the "tags," just like the internet does), you can quickly turn a verbal description or impression of a thing/place/person/whatevs into a usable game element. Bam, simple.

An Echo, Resounding (hereafter AER) tackles the hexcrawl from the perspective of this tag system. The logic applied is largely: let's paint the setting with broad strokes and give brief descriptions to the big things in it, then we can discover the rest through play, translating the words that we've used to describe what we've encountered into gamable elements that we can interact with from a rules standpoint. Hmm. It should not be a surprise that I enjoy this approach.

Crawford spends a lot of his book talking about the Domain Management side of the game. For once, I'm not going to tread there, however much I want to. This series is about the hexcrawl itself, not the Domain Game, so I'm going to step off. Well, other than to say that I fucking love the way that Crawford handles the Domain Game and that if I weren't running ACKS as the engine of my current Domain-centric campaign, I'd totally be using at least parts of this one. There you go, we're done. On to the hexcrawl.

Crawford doesn't suggest any one method for generating your map, nor does he state that a hexmap is necessary. Rather, he suggests vague mappery that instead of focusing on particulars focuses on the board-strokes details: where are the towns? Where are the castles? Where are the major resources, dungeons and monster lairs? Crawford is focused less on the "how you get there" and more on the "what's at the end of the journey," which ties in more to his idea of the sandbox as a backdrop for domain play, and less into my own concept of the sandbox as an adventure opportunity in and of itself.

The big place where I see AER filling an important role is in the development of several key features of any given sandbox: the book includes a few different dimensions that your standard sandbox features -- towns, lairs, ruins, resources, etc. -- can be developed along, as well as the consequences of those developments. For example, a town might have been settled by xenophobes, and while that's not exactly the most socially desirable trait, it does have some benefit (specifically +2 Social using AER's Domain Management system) and that plays out in game terms. The town will also have an "activity" that generally describes the course that society is taking there, as well as an obstacle to overcome. Bam, you've got a nice sandbox location. This pattern is repeated for lairs, ruins and resources.

I'm especially keen on the inclusion of resources as a sandbox detail. It makes sense to me that there are things out there -- mines, forests, guano caves, whatever -- that confer some sort of benefit on their owner. It feels like a lot of other Domain Games either handwave these aspects or shoehorn them into another facet (I feel ACKS tends to abstract this to be part of a domain's Land Value), but I think they should be more important than they tend to be. If I want my vikings to build a bunch of fucking longboats, I'd better have access to a ton of lumber. It just makes sense. I like that Crawford makes simple things that make sense important in the game.

It's stuff like this -- easy, natural-language stuff that makes logically important details systematically important -- that really stand out in my brain as I start building a hexcrawl and they help drive the systems that I've put in place to help me do it.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Dynamic Hexcrawl Required Reading: Outdoor Survival, Volume III & The Ref Sheets/Hexagon Legacy

In talking about hexcrawls, it makes sense to go back to the very beginning, doesn't it? Thankfully, in the past few decades, there's been tons of research on the history of D&D and lots of examination of its development, so that folks like me can look back and point out "oh, that's where that came from" with less and less work. And so, as we look back upon the formation of the idea of the hexcrawl, it makes sense for us to look back at the origin of the gaming hobby to see where this shizz came from, right?

By now, I think most of us are aware that back in the white box days, OD&D was written to use Avalon Hill's Outdoor Survival board game's playing board as a map. But that's not the entirety of the truth. In Volume III: The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures, Uncle Gary writes:
"Off-hand adventures in the wilderness are made on the OUTDOOR SURVIVAL playing board (explained below). Exploratory journies, such as expeditions to find land suitable for a castle or in search of some legendary treasure are handled in an entirely different manner." 
Then we get some rules for reinterpreting the Outdoor Survival map in a D&D context before coming back around to explaining how exactly "exploratory journeys" are to be handled. But before we get into that, let's talk about the first part. It seems that Gary's idea for an "off-hand adventure" isn't "serious exploration," The implication of the "here's how to use the OS map" section is that things are to be generated on the fly, as play occurs.

Which is exactly how I do it. Once again, Gary (and Dave, can't leave him out!) got there first. Go figure. Well, except for the fact that Gary is using a predefined, static map that came from another company. Something that DIY rpg enthusiasts today would call a "hack." Yep, he did that first, too.

The section on "REFEREE'S MAP" (ie, the "entirely different manner") is really quite light on detail of how to generate the eponymous map, but we know that it's supposed to be done on hexpaper (natch) and is supposed to use a scale of "about 5 miles." One neat little detail that I had never noticed before (but is super-sweet and is making its way into my ACKS game) is the rule here about rest.
"Rest: All creatures must rest after six days of movement. Rest must be at least one full day."
The "REF's MAP" section quickly fades into the "how to crawl" portion of the text, which is well and good, but I was hoping for more gems of advice.

So, if it were 197X and I were looking for expanded detail on something in whitebox D&D, where would I turn (other than my own imagination)? Fuck yeah, Judges Guild.

I've talked about Judges Guild before. I can't stop. I'll admit that I'm less of a Wilderlands guy, though, and more of a "the random stuff that JG made for D&D" guy. Case in point is the next focus of our required reading segment: Judges Guild Ready Ref Sheets. I've talked about them before and I'll probably talk about them again, but I can say with a very high degree of confidence that no other single classic text -- not even my much-loved 1e DMG -- has more throw-away info and useful random tables until Richard LeBlanc's d30 companions (don't worry, I need to talk about those, too) were it not for one other Judges Guild publication: the Campaign Hexagon System. Yeah, with a name like that, it's pretty much a "gimme," right?

The Campaign Hexagon System presents a series of exceptionally useful charts for generating random terrain and terrain elements, settlements and such. Ready Ref Sheets contains much of the same material, but is far more useful for generating city-based adventures on the fly. The CHS uses "generate as you go" sort of methodology for determining even the terrain type of each hex, meaning that no one, not even the DM, knows what the map is like until it is created during play. This, to me, if great; I'm not likely to work this way completely, but it's great. Any tool that assists in your improvisation as a DM and encourages it at the same time is right up my alley. The "generate on the fly" methodology isn't just for terrain, but it also helps with designing ruins and lairs dynamically, too. This is what the CHS and RRS are designed to do, and they do it well..

I find it interesting -- and somewhat illuminating -- that while I found the step-by-step instructions in the Cook & Mentzer Expert sets to be very well-worded and thoughtful, giving the DM a very clear idea of how to go about making his own "wilderness area," the one I myself use has more in common with earlier materials from the OD&D era, despite the fact that I never had any experience with OD&D until long after I had my Expert influence. If you haven't checked out the Judges Guild material, waste no time. Not only is this stuff important from a historical standpoint, but it's damn useful from a practical game standpoint.

One last note: a modern successor to the Campaign Hexagon System can be found in the Wilderness Hexploration Document [found here], apparently compiled by a Red Box New York user named "Jedo." No current official pdf version of the CHS exists to the best of my knowledge. 

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Dynamic Hexcrawl Required Reading: Mentzer & Cook, Experts

A little while ago, I promised to start a series of posts on hexcrawl design the way I do it, which I call "dynamic hexcrawl design." Fancy name for "I make shit up as I go along, but here are the rules I use to make shit up with." It started with my "Let's Talk About Hexcrawl Design" post, where a conversation about the tools I use spiraled into me realizing I wasn't adequately describing how I go about doing stuff. And so, here we are, talking about hexcrawls once again, and probably for awhile. But before we get into my particular idiom of how to hexcrawl, I want to review some of the ideas on how to hexcrawl that have been around for awhile, because I draw a lot of inspiration from a lot of different places. Today, we'll be talking about the influene that both of the D&D Expert Sets have.

First, turn in your missal to the Second Book of BX, Revelations of St. Cook Unto the Experts, page X54. Read the whole thing. Every time I go back to the BX texts, I'm struck by how robust and really very poinient they are. I think the fact that I cut my gaming teeth on Mentzer (which back in the day did in fact have the stigma of "kiddie D&D" around it, that you'd graduate from Basic and go on to Advanced D&D, a misconception that was exacerbated by the advertising for both brands at the time) kept me from looking back in time at the previous edition of Expert, one that I was only vaguely aware of back in the day, until relatively recently.

Read page x54. All of it. Because I love you all so much, here's a link to that page.


This little page is chock full of wisdom and simple processes, but no explicit "this is how you do X, Y or Z." Dave Cook's general rule is to let common sense be your guide. This can be both a strength and a weakness; when I was 11, when I was in serious contemplation of these rules, common sense was in relatively short supply, but today, I don't want a mess of rules getting in the way of things that make sense. Here we see the first mention that I know of in a TSR product of the 6 mile/24 mile hex set up that seems to terribly common in modern OSR games (I'll go back and check OD&D, but I'm pretty sure it's not there since Gary seemed to like 5 mile hexes). What Cook provides us with are guidelines more than anything else, and no real procedure. That's fine. That's good. He shows us things we should be paying attention to and then encourages us to move on. Nice, solid little section.

Now we shall turn to the Second Book of BECMI, the Letter of St. Frank of Mentzer to the Experts, page 28.


You'll see that Uncle Frank doesn't change the text much from Cook's original. Definitely not in any substantive way. What Frank adds is some fine-tuning details, specifically more information about the non-human races that might be found in "the wilderness" that you're designing.

Which brings up a point that's worth paying attention to at this juncture. Neither Cook nor Uncle Frank call it a "hexcrawl," at least not in these texts. Instead, we have "wilderness regions." I mean, it makes sense, right? "Hexcrawl" is clearly a more recent innovation, derived from the term "dungeoncrawl." Today, these terms are used with a degree of love behind them, even if it's a nostalgiac or ironic form of love; it feels, though, as if we were to send these terms back in time to 1980 or '83, they would have seemed terms of derision. After all, adventuring should never feel like it's a crawl, right?

The Cook/Mentzer approach seems to rely closely on defining the entirety of the wilderness and everything within in. Clearly, that's not something I'm interested in. I know that some folks will think I'm interpreting too much out of my reading of these rules, but my personal linguistic impression of these texts isn't quite something I can be wrong about. Incorrigibility, suckers, learn about it. However, both Cook and Mentzer include lots of qualifying language: "could," "maybe," "can be," etc. There aren't any "you must"-s, which is good. It's just there's more of a "put everything you're going to need in now" sort of perspective implied that I'm not too keen on. Honestly, there's a bunch of stuff that I'm not going to remember to include until I need it. Mentzer and Cook don't say I can't do that, they just imply that I want to make sure I had that stuff there in the first place.

I mentioned that there's no method of generating things suggested by Mentzer or Cook and that means no random tables or the like. While I don't feel like I NEED random tables, they are good for jogging the mind, giving me ideas, and keeping my brain moving when I'm designing things. Since I generate my hexcrawls dynamically (more on that coming soon), I might rely on these mind-joggers more than other DMs, but my prep time is crazy low, so there's a bit of a tradeoff.

In short, the Cook & Mentzer methods are great reads and excellent jumping off points for me, even if they don't have everything I need.