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Monday, August 31, 2020

Geekerati Reviews: For Coin & Blood 2nd Edition by Gallant Knight Games


In 2018, Gallant Knight Games published a role playing game entitled For Coin & Blood. The game was designed with the intent of capturing the freeform mechanical feel of first generation fantasy roleplaying games and the narrative tone of Grim Dark fantasy novels and shows. It was a game inspired by Original D&D and the writings of Kate Elliot, Joe Abercrombie, Sarah Monette, Glen Cook, Anna Smith Spark, Scott Lynch, and others.

The first edition of For Coin & Blood was well received by critics and gamers and remains a "Gold" seller on DriveThruRPG, the internet's largest digital rpg store. As successful as the game is, it was an early design by Alan Bahr and there was room for expansion and improvement. Bahr's done a lot of game design between 2018 and 2020 and he thought it was time for a second edition that reflected the lessons he's learned over the years and he wanted to release that edition in a printed edition as beautiful as he thought the updated rules deserved.

So he did what any independent designer does in these situations and launched a Kickstarter. In fact, that Kickstarter launched today (August 31, 2020) and will be running for the next 10 days (until September 9th). You'll have to act fast if you want to get one of the premium books from the Kickstarter, though I'm certain the game will be sold via DriveThruRPG afterwards. One thing to note here as you read this review. If you want to get a printed copy after reading this, make sure to back the Kickstarter. As good as the printing quality of DriveThruRPG's books are, and they are good, they are nothing compared to the print shop printing Gallant Knight puts together on their full print run products.

Now that the background is taken care of, how is For Coin & Blood as a game?

The TL;DR is that it reflects every ounce of design knowledge Alan Bahr has learned over the past few years and is an excellent and evocative design. One that I immediately backed on Kickstarter after reading my review copy.

Now for the longer review. What's Good, what's Bad, and...what's Awesome about this game.

The Good

The first thing that jumps out about the game is its setting. Grim Dark is a great theme that has an abundance of fiction game masters and players can look to for guidance on how to play. Some of the best fiction in Fantasy is in the Grim Dark genre. My own personal favorites include Glen Cook's The Black Company series, the Thieves' World anthologies, David Gemmell's Waylander tales, Steven Brust's Vlad Taltos tales, Andy Remic's Clockwork Vampire Chronicles, Simon R. Green's Hawk and Fisher stories, Kate Elliot's Crown of Stars series, and a long list that includes Michael Moorcock, Brent Weeks, Karl Edward Wagner, and so many more.   

As great as the setting is, Grimdark roleplaying sessions can wander down the path to excess. Thankfully, Alan Bahr provides a little advice on how to be more Joe Abercrombie and less Edgelord von Torturestein. Adding to the advice on running the game (there should be more), For Coin and Blood 2nd Edition provides a nicely detailed setting. It also includes two tales of tone setting fiction by Steve Diamond and Mari Murdock

Mechanically, the game uses a modified version of the d20 based role playing game we all know and love including some of the most recent innovations like Advantage and Disadvantage. In doing so, it has mechanics that appeal to both fans of newer heroic roleplaying and older more tactical and freeform gaming.

For example the skill tests used in For Coin and Blood echoes the assumed mechanics of Moldvay/Cook (aka B/X edition) of Dungeons & Dragons.  Hidden in the depths of that games mechanics was a foundational skill system where 1d6 being rolled against a difficulty. You can see it in the break down doors/bend bars, find secret doors, and locate traps rules of Basic/Expert D&D. In For Coin and Blood the basic skill roll tends to default to a need to roll 4+ on a six sided die. This is true for all of the narrow class skills that are specifically listed in the character classes. There is one exception. The thief  has a broad skill bonus that adds to a broad set of thief related tasks. There is no specific breakdown of thief skills, nor is there a default given in the thief class section. The lack of specific skills is fine, as we'll see in the discussion of "professions" below.

In addition to the skill system echoing B/X D&D,  Alan Bahr adapts the "die tree" from The Black Hack for use on skill tests and a couple of other game mechanics as well. The die tree, or step die mechanic, is a very neat mechanic that has its roots in Earthdawn and Alternity. Instead of giving a player a +1/-1 or +2/-2 modifier that is added to a roll, a die step mechanic has the player roll the next higher/lower die. A +1 die step would mean a player who normally rolls a d6 for an outcome would roll a d8 or d4 depending on whether they received a bonus or penalty.

The game's attribute modifiers are similar to those of OD&D instead of more modern versions. In For Coin & Blood only scores 15 and higher give a mechanical benefit and only those below 6 give a penalty. What this means is that the game is more Archetype focused and less stat focused. Statistical bonuses are "cooked in" to the things players are expected to have and thus exceptional bonuses are exception and players don't need to roll high statistics to be "on curve" for play. I love that the game focuses more on Archetypes than statistics, tot that this will stop me from a very long boring discussion below in the "The Bad" section when it comes to statistics and character creation.

Like many games, For Coin and Blood uses a combination of armor class (defense) and armor as damage reduction. In this case armor doesn't contribute to "defense", the number required to hit the character, at all and only provides damage reduction. This is similar to the system used by Wizards of the Coasts Star Wars Saga Edition role playing game. In this case, Alan Bahr added armor attrition and shield rules inspired by The Black Hack as well.


The Bad

There's not a lot to critique from a non-mechanical perspective, if I was to add something to the text I would add a good deal more advice on how to run the setting to keep it "Grim Dark" and not "Murder Hobos on Parade." This is the genre of Michael Moorcock, Steven Brust, the Thieves' World crew, Brent Weeks, Andy Remic, David Gemmell, Glen Cook, Karl Edward Wagner, and Cameron Johnston. While some of these authors incorporate certain types of disturbing violence into their fiction, they usually don't wallow in it. For Coin & Blood does have a strong disclaimer at the beginning that provides context, but I'd like to see more DM advice in this regard. As someone who has played in "evil" campaigns before, I've found they are more rewarding when they deal with moral complexity rather than focus on being gorefests. There are those gamers who want to play F.A.T.A.L. and this is not the game for them. This is not an edgelord game and those who want that style of play should look elsewhere. Still, it could use more advice on how to handle sensitive situations or provide a bibliography to existing resources.

I love 99.99% of the mechanical decisions in this game, but there is one mechanic I really don't like and that is the system of attribute determination during character generation. Alan Bahr has a favorite character generation system for OSR style games. He's used it in a number of his other "Venerable Knight Games"  publication. The system does allow for some flexibility, but depending on how you use it results in very focused characters and never really seem to accomplish exactly what Alan is hoping to do.

It starts straight forward enough with characters having six core attribute rated from 3-18: Might, Learning, Insight, Fortitude, Agility, and Charisma. Before we continue, I thought I'd let you know that I'm going to spend a lot of time talking about this, so you might want to skip down to the "Awesome" section below. There is a lot that's awesome, but for some reason the stat generation system rubs me the wrong way. What's even more ironic is that because of the Archetype and not Attribute approach of the game, the generation system really doesn't have much effect on gameplay.

Having said all of the above, here is the basic stat generation system.


Essentially, you roll 5 dice and then you order them as you wish following the above algorithm picking the highest die for your "most important stat" and the lowest die for your "dump stat." You'll note that Alan writes, "this will give you one particularly good statistic, one weak statistic, and four that range between average and good." Well...this is not exactly true and depends on how you arrange the stats.

The following analysis is based on a bit of Rmarkdown code I wrote for demonstration purposes that you can find here. If you don't have R-Studio and only want to look at ALL the output, you can find it on this webpage. But I will also be nice and show you some real examples below. 

In essence, you have a few choices as a player. You can choose to be the Specialist who has one fantastic stat and five stats that are for all intents and purposes average. You do this by rolling 5 dice, sorting them in order and using the above algorithm to generation your stats. For the sake of argument, let's say you roll the following array (I've already sorted them from high to low).

So you've got a 6, 5, 4, 3, 3. This is actually a pretty good roll. If we assumed these were added to the average on 2 dice of 7, we'd have a 13, 12, 11, 10, 10. In For Coin & Blood, none of those would be exceptional. But that's not the system. We start with 12, 11, 11, 10, 10, 10 and follow the algorithm above. Doing that, going from high to low in order, we get the following array.

One very high number, a bunch of straight up average numbers, and one low number but not low enough for a penalty (penalties start at 6 and lower).

What if we mix it up a little and still put the highest value on our prime stat, then second lowest, then middle, then second highest, and finally lowest on our dump stat? That sounds interesting right? This is what we get.

The numbers look more interesting, but there is still no real impact on play except that we are still specialized in our max stat. Remember, there are no penalties for 8s and no bonuses for 12s.

Let's mix things up a little bit more and go a little counter-intuitive by not putting our highest stat in our prime stat. This time we'll put the middle stat in the first spot, the second lowest in the second slot, the highest in the middle, the second highest next, and the worst last. This gets us the following:

In a regular d20 game, this might be the most interesting to play. This is close to the "Generalist" array from various versions of D&D. The only thing is that in For Coin & Blood, all of these stats except the 16 are still "average" and provide no bonus. Adding salt to the wound we could have a mechanically better, but aesthetically less appealing, array with a max 18 instead.

I know that I praised the game for relying on Archetypes rather than Attributes for what really matters in the game. I still believe that, but that's why I find this system odd. The algorithm is clunky for new gamers. You add dice and subtract prior dice as you go and as your reward you either get a specialist with one good stat or you end up with something very close to what you would get from just rolling 3d6 and being able to put them in any order you want. It just strikes me as inelagant in a game that is otherwise very elegant.

My second complaint is relatively minor. There is no base number given for various thief related tasks in thief section. The rules section states that the default for most actions is 4+ and that the narrator should modify this for effect. The game provides a very useful chart to do this, but it would be nice to have mention in thief class.

The weapon rules are AWESOME (see below), but the weapon degrading rules look like they need modification to update the mechanic from a "weapon die" system to a "class die" system. Given that one can easily assume that Sellswords and Knights are knowledgeable on how to care for their weapons than Magi etc., this is only a one sentence change to remain consistent.

Not a lot of complaints, just one overly long one.

City Raid Illustration by Ger Curti
Illustration by Ger Curti

The Awesome

First and foremost, I love so much about this game that I had to stop listing the "Awesome" rated stuff before this review became a "just copy the rules" review. 

One of the things that For Coin & Blood revives is the old money earned = XP earned mechanic from old versions of D&D. What I'm about to write may seem counter-intuitive, but this XP system actually reduces the "Murder Hobo" nature of adventuring. Monsters in older versions of D&D are rated in XP for "defeating" (usually being killed) and in how much treasure they have. In new versions, you pretty much just have the "defeated" XP value. What having the money = XP mechanic does is it immediately gets people to ask, "can I get the treasure without fighting?" Why? Because monsters usually have more in gold than their defeat XP value. When you add the old rules for "Encounter Relations" from B/X, Charisma becomes the "get rich and not kill ever" stat and ends the cycle of "Breach, Sleep, Clear!" that D&D can become. Sadly, Alan doesn't incorporate the Encounter Reaction chart, but given how much time is spent on sections itemizing how much characters get paid for certain activities, the money = XP system really ups the "let's find other solutions than killing" aspect of the game.

For Coin & Blood has a new statistic called Infamy that reflects how well known the character is. This statistic affects the jobs characters can get and which organizations they can join. Characters can gain and lose reputation in a way that echoes the old Marvel Super Heroes game. Infamy also affects how much players get paid for missions, gives them an XP bonus at high levels, and by affecting payment it also affects XP directly. It also provides a lure for those who want to oppose the players. The higher your Infamy, the more people know who you are and the more foes you have. Great idea!

Alan borrows a great idea from Shadow of the Demon Lord with the inclusion of Professions. What's a profession? It's what your character actually does for a living and is separate from class and can be anything you want it to be. It could be related to your class, a thief could be a "cat burglar" for example, but it need not be related. Maybe your Thief is a Bodyguard or Wandering Young Noble. You get to choose freely and fit it to whatever backstory you want. Profession does have some mechanical benefit. It aids characters in making skill tests. Any skill tests associated with your profession more likely to succeed because you get a one step die improvement on the skill roll. Very nice. Allows for flexibility and player agency.

Alan decided to incorporate one of my favorite gaming mechanics by including class based weapon damage. Instead of having weapons do a fixed amount of damage, swords doing 1d8 for example, weapon damage is based on class. Classes that are martial in nature do more damage than those unfamiliar with them. This is a nice way of letting Mages use swords without altering balance. They still roll d4 for damage, but they get to look cool doing it.

The game has so many cool classes and each has interesting mechanics. I particularly liked the Diabolist and their Pacts. The system of pacts was very evocative and flexible and fit within the Grimdark theme exceptionally well. I also absolutely loved the inclusion of the Executioner class...can we say Gene Wolfe inspired?

The game has one of the best fantasy incorporations of firearms from a mechanical perspective. Keeps the fearful lethality of the weapon (via crits and another nod to Marvel Super Heroes) and does this without amplifying the damage dice rolled.

The system for how magic weapons and magic armor come into existence is really evocative and narrative. When players roll a critical hit, or survive one in the case of armor, they may devote XP to the item. When they've devoted enough XP, the weapon gains properties. It's a very nice "low magic" mechanic and I adore it.

I could go on and on, but I'll just list three more things I thought were very good design elements The rules for Legacy experience for when characters die and the player transitions to a new character, the concept of Grim effort which literally ties lifeforce to success, and the Organization rules really round out the product.


My overall opinion is that this is a fantastic role playing game that I'd love to see get play time with my group. There are areas for more development, so I'd love to see some expansions, but this thing packs a lot of punch.

What are you waiting for? Go back the Kickstarter.

Oh, and this is VERY different from the 1st edition. That edition is good, but 2nd edition adds so much.

Friday, August 07, 2020

New Hellboy RPG Coming Your Way

In May of 2018 Mantic Games launched their Hellboy Miniature Board Game on Kickstarter to great success. The game uses simple mechanics and has some wonderful looking miniatures. So wonderful that I was very tempted to start up Hellboy RPG campaign just to put the minis to use. The dilemma I faced was what rules set to use to play a Hellboy game. I own the Hellboy Sourcebook and Roleplaying Game by Steve Jackson Games, but I've never really been satisfied with GURPS as an engine for cinematic play.

As much as I love Steve Jackson Games, and as many GURPS products as I own, it's always been hard to find a group willing to learn the extremely granular rules set. Yes, it is possible to set aside 80% of the rules and play a GURPS-Lite game with an easy to understand system, but I usually have a player who wants to fully leverage the capabilities of the system. They would like the other players to do the same and that requires taking the time to learn and take advantage of all the interactions etc., which is usually more than I can ask of most of my gaming group. It's one of those cases where the GURPS enthusiast in our group is over enthusiastic to play around with everything and thus we end up playing other games. GURPS being GURPS, and Steve Jackson Games being Steve Jackson Games, the sourcebooks are so detailed that they are useful for any system. So...that still left me with the dilemma of what system to run.

My top contenders were DC Heroes, Marvel SAGA, Tiny Supers, Modern AGE, and Gamma World (the 4e based one), but I think that's about to change.

Mantic Games announced this week, just post #GenConOnline, that they would be releasing a new Hellboy role playing game based on the D&D 5th Edition rules set

I'm always skeptical when a dominant rules set starts getting applied to any and all settings. The d20 explosion saw an overabundance of badly designed games that attempted to squeeze "round" genres in the the "square" that was 3rd edition D&D. That doesn't mean that every attempt to create a d20 game was a failure. In fact, some very creative designers at Green Ronin (Steve Kenson and crew) were able to adapt the super hero genre to a d20 system inspired mechanic quite elegantly. They did so by not adapting the source material to the d20 rules, rather by adapting the d20 rules to the milieu. Wizards of the Coast did something similar when they adapted Star Wars to d20. The Wizards of the Coast Star Wars rules changed the core rules to fit the setting. I would argue that they didn't quite go far enough, but the end result was still a very workable game.

This leaves me wondering which approach Mantic is taking. Are they trying to fit the round Hellboy setting into the square 5e rules set or are they attempting to modify the 5e rules set until it is round? Doing this allows ease of learning for players familiar with 5e, while still maintaining what makes the setting worth playing at all.

We won't be able to see the full Quickstart rules to get a clear answer to this question until the Kickstarter launches later this month, but a look at one of the pre-generated character sheets gives us a clue. Let's have a look at Mona.

From a quick glance at the character sheet, we can already see some ways in which the design team has created mechanics designed to make the core 5e foundation fit the setting rather than the other way around. I see references to "Wound Levels" and "Origin Features" that either create new mechanics or leverage existing mechanics to create new effects. That all looks promising, but I do see one element that makes me worry about the design. Take a look at the weapon damage of the B.R.P.D. Sidearm. It looks like it does 2d10 damage. That's A LOT of damage for a pistol in 5e and is enough to kill your average 2nd level character in one shot under standard 5e rules.

"But guns are lethal," you say? Well, so are swords, axes, arrows, and maces. Have you ever seen what a mace does to a ballistics gel dummy? It's not nice. The fact is that damage mechanics are set to the level of "heroism" you want a game to feel. Games have to balance slow and ponderous combat that lasts too many combat rounds with the ability of player characters to endure enough damage to feel heroic. Given that there is a "Wound" mechanic what does that mean? How does that work? How is the damage system different and will it feel "fun" for players?

These are important design considerations. Players like to feel heroic. There's a reason the most popular game systems, both wargame based and freeform, are as popular as they are and it tends to be because they facilitate heroic play. Gone are the days when most players are satisfied with fragility. I love my B/X D&D, but my players find it stressful and don't get as much enjoyment out of the system as I would like.

What does this have to do with Hellboy? I'm going to posit that most people who want to play in the Hellboy setting want to be as "Epic" as Hellboy and his team and not be the RPG equivalent of fragile red shirts. Even as a lot of agents die in the comic books. But remember, a lot of Rebels die in Star Wars and most people don't want to be the ship crew who get mowed down by Darth Vader.

Does the current game emulate this? I don't know, but the weapon damage has me worried.

That doesn't mean I'm not excited. I am. I own the old Steve Jackson rpg. I own the Hellboy Board Game, which is a lot of fun, and I'll be backing the new game when it comes.

Wednesday, August 05, 2020

Rethinking Dungeons & Dragons: An Alternate "Original D&D" Combat System

As you might have noticed, I've been on a bit of a Dungeons & Dragons history and prehistory kick of late. My past two posts have discussed articles from the old British Miniature Soldier Society's Bulletin and the Society of Ancients Slingshot Magazine and how those relate to the early development of D&D. I'll be returning to that series of pre-D&D influences in the British gaming scene soon, but I recently read a very interesting conversation over on the OD&D discussion boards regarding the combat system for David Arneson's Blackmoor Campaign.

As most of you know, Dungeons & Dragons is over 40 years old and though the game has changed a lot over the decades one thing has remained the same. In every edition since the Little Brown Books first introduced the "Alternate Combat System" the basic mechanic of the game has been for players to roll a Twenty-sided die to determine success or failure when attacking in combat. That term "Alternate Combat System" has always intrigued me. While the original Little Brown Books recommend using Chainmail as the combat system for D&D play, it isn't evident that this was the system that either Arneson or Gygax were actually using in their pre-publication D&D games. Writers like Jason Vey, Jason Cone, and Daniel Boggs (as Alderron) have all examined how to run D&D using the Chainmail system. Jason Vey's Spellcraft & Swordplay Core Rulebook and Daniel Boggs' Champions of ZED: Zero Edition Dungeoneering have gone even further an attempted to create and play games that are similar in style to the game David Arneson may have played in the pre-publication days of D&D.

The recent conversation on the OD&D discussion boards was started by Daniel Boggs who was inquiring what David Arneson's post-Chainmail game sessions might look like. According to Boggs' post, Arneson's crew may have played using rules adapted from an Ironclads rule set Arneson had designed for American Civil War ship to ship combat. I initially confused Arneson's Ironclad rules with Tom Wham's Ironclad rules and some large sum of cash spent at Noble Knight Games later, I discovered that these were not the rule Boggs was referencing.

The discussion board conversation inspired me to play around with a "pre-D&D-esque" combat rules set of my own based on a system of rolling 2d6-2 for the combat rolls. If you read the Boggs' led conversation, you'll see that 1-10 rolls (or 0-10 rolls) might have been used by Arneson's team. My goal here is to open a conversation and get feedback before playtesting. I'm in the process of adapting the Chainmail rules outright, but this would be another alternative system.

The original Chainmail man-to-man combat system, as Boggs/Vey and others have pointed out Chainmail has at least 3 combat subsystems, uses a comparison of a person's weapon and an opponent's armor to determine the to hit roll. For example (looking at the table below), a person with a dagger would need to roll a 12 on 2d6 to hit a person wearing Plate Armor and Shield. Any blow struck kills the target, or deals 1d6 damage in D&D's adaptation of the rules.
This is a very workable system that has a lot of granularity and is one that I'm looking forward to playing with my regular game group, but it is also one that is more "fiddly" and combat table based than many modern gamers are used to in their games. If you look at the table above, you'll see that Chainmail used an ascending Armor Class much like the modern game. This was reversed in original D&D and Armor Class was rescaled so that lower Armor Classes were better and Plate Armor and Shield was given an AC of 2, while No Armor was given an AC of 10.

Under a d20 system, I have come to prefer ascending ACs as being more intuitive for players, but in the system I'm about to propose I'm going to recommend keeping the reversed ACs of the Original Little Brown Books.

What is my alternative system? It's fairly simple and is essentially what was discussed in the OD&D boards. I want to experiment with rolling 2d6-2 where the characters hit if they roll less than the AC of the defender. You can see a breakdown of the probability of success below. I've selected "less than" rather than "equal to or less than" because I want to have some potential for automatic failure.

You'll notice that this system makes it very difficult to hit opponents with a good armor class. A player would only have an 8.33% chance of hitting an opponent with an AC of 2 (Plate Mail) and only a 2.78% chance of hitting an opponent with an AC of 1 (Plate Mail and Shield). This won't be too big a deal if GMs ensure that such armors are expensive and doesn't give too many creatures an Armor Class that low. Such a strong defense should be limited to Dragons and the like.

Now that I've established the base to-hit numbers, I've got two D&D related questions to answer.
  1. How does level advancement affect to hit rolls for both monsters and character?
  2. How much damage is done on a hit?
Keeping the basic classes of the first three Little Brown Books (Fighting Men, Clerics, and Magic Users), I think that these classes improve in their ability to bypass armor as they increase in levels by having the ability to modify the Armor Class they are rolling against. In essence, higher level characters are more able to see and exploit the weaknesses in armor and thus can treat Armor Classes as a higher Armor Class as they gain levels. I would propose an advancement that looks like the one below. Fighting Men begin play with a slightly better chance to hit opponents than other classes and start with a bonus where other classes have to wait and have a lower total bonus at higher levels. Keep in mind that the Armor Class Adjustment is added to the Opponent's Armor Class and not to the die roll. Thus a 13th Level Fighting Man would attack Plate Mail and Shield (AC 1) as if it was Leather and Shield (AC 6) and would hit that 58% of the time. This may seem pretty radical, but keep in mind this is a very high level Fighting Man and that it is only a single hit.
The second question is what to do about damage. In Chainmail a single hit equals death, but "Heroes" and "Superheroes" are able to take multiple hits before dying. This is reflected in the Little Brown Books in two ways. The first is the "Hit Points" with which gamers are well familiar. The second is by counting characters as multiple "Men" as they progress. A high level Fighting Man might eventually fight with the ability of "8 Men" at the "Superhero" rank. Essentially, the ability to fight as multiple people is reflected in the Hit Points of the characters as they have a number of d6 Hit Dice that are essentially equal to the number of "Men" the character can fight as. Given that all weapons in the Little Brown Books do 1d6 damage, each successful attack does enough damage to kill a level 1 character (1 Hit Die of 1d6 vs. 1 attack of 1d6 damage), it doesn't really matter whether you want each attack to do 1 "Man" of Damage or 1d6 of damage. It's only when you add the rules for Magic, and this is D&D after all, that it becomes evident that the damage should be 1d6 per hit.

But how many "attacks" does a character get? Looking at the Fighting Capability, you can see the references to a number of "Men" for each class. That's what I would use to determine the number of attacks. Yes, this means that I'd have a high level fighter making 8 attacks against opponents. You might think that this affects game balance, except when you compare it to the damage that high level Magic Users are capable of dishing out I think it's more than warranted.

These are some preliminary thoughts on a Alternative to the "Alternative Combat System" that captures a bit of the miniature inspired play while being a bit more freeform than a strict adherence to Chainmail.

What are your thoughts?

Thursday, July 23, 2020

When Discussing Early RPGs and Wargames, Let's Not Forget the British Scene Part 2: Did Tony Bath Influence the Famous Appendix N?

This is the second in a series of posts about the British Wargaming Scene's influence on D&D. The first entry in the series can be read here.

We've long known that Tony Bath's rules for medieval combat influenced the creation of Chainmail, and thus D&D. Tony Bath was one of the most influential members of the growing British wargaming hobby in the middle of the 20th century. But I think historians and fans often overlook how much he influenced not only the mechanics of play, but the genre of play as well.

Tony Bath's "War Game of the Middle Ages and Ancient Times" was first published in 1956 in the June/July and August/September issues of the British Model Soldier Society's The Bulletin. A critique by Charles Grant and rules "errata" were published in the October issue that same year. These ancient rules were significant in a couple of ways. They are among the early rules sets to innovate by using dice to determine combat outcomes and they are one of the earliest rules for medieval and ancient miniatures combat.

Bath also wrote an article in July 1966 issue (51) of Wargamer's Newsletter, an issue that had "1066" as its theme and which contained Phil Barker's influential medieval rules.  Wargamer's Newsletter was published by Donald Featherstone, who is arguably the most significant evangelist for the wargaming hobby, and had frequent contributions from Tony Bath, Charles Grant, and others. Featherstone discussed the importance of Bath in the hobby, and shared an abbreviated form of his rules, in his 1962 book War Games. Interestingly, Featherstone's discussion of Bath's rules in that book includes references to Bath's Hyborian campaign in which Bath used Robert E. Howard's fictional setting as the foundation for a wargaming campaign. This allowed players in Bath's gaming circle to mix and match armies from antiquity and the middle-ages in "what if" battles that wouldn't be possible in a more historically focused environment. The fact that Bath's rules were known to Gygax, and that Bath used a Howardian setting (though one without magic), might serve as sufficient evidence that Bath provided a kind of pre-Appendix N inspiration to incorporate fantasy into gaming that was picked up and expanded upon by Gygax. Such an assertion would be limited though due to the fact that Bath's campaign didn't use magic and that Howard was surging in popularity in the 60s.

There is, however, additional evidence of Bath's potential influence on Gygax's selections in Appendix N and in D&D in general. In fact, in many ways it might be argued that Bath provided a road map of influences that Gygax followed in selecting the appropriate fantasy milieu to incorporate into table top gaming. Where is this road map? In the pages of the Society of Ancient's house magazine Slingshot.

Tony Bath founded the Society of Ancients in 1965 with a small membership of around 20 members. The Society was created as a way for those interested in ancient battles to share their research, gaming rules, and insights with one another. Amazingly, the Society is still around today and readily makes available back issues of their in house newsletter. One of the things that really amazes me about the British gaming scene, at least the wargaming scene, is how keen they are to maintaining records of the history of the hobby and making available content to the "non-collector" audience. Between the John Curry's History of Wargaming Project and The Society of Ancients, one can access a lot of older material at very reasonable prices.

In issue #9 of Slingshot, published in January of 1967, Tony Bath wrote an article of particular interest to fans of Dungeons & Dragons. In an article entitled "Campaigning with the Aid of Fantasy Fiction" (Page 10), Bath provides a relatively detailed account of the fiction that can serve as inspiration for miniature wargaming campaigns. 

What was contained in Bath's article? In the article, he argues that players will find playing wargame campaigns in fantasy worlds of their own creation to be superior to strictly historical play and argues that one of the advantages of using fantasy fiction as a foundation is the fact that many fantasy worlds come with detailed maps which can be used to track campaign activities. Additionally, he provides a number of recommended literary works. Instead of publishing excerpts of the article, I'll provide a quick list of inspirational sources in the order Bath provided them in his article.

  • Robert E. Howard's Hyboria
  • Tolkien's "Lords of the Ring" (sic)
  • Edgar Rice Burroughs Mars and Venus Books
  • Fritz Leiber's Nehwon stories
  • Robert E. Howard's Almuric.
  • L. Sprague de Camp's Tritonian Ring, Queen of Zamba, Hand of Zei.
  • Leigh Brackett's Mars stories.
Following the discussion of influential works, Bath discusses "kingdom structures" in a manner that both seems to advocate for proto-roleplay and predicts the later focus on domain creation/rule by name level characters in D&D as the leadership hierarchy in his discussion is similar to discussions in D&D publications.

What do we notice about the list of inspirations above? Other than Tolkein, whom Gygax claimed had minimal influence on the milieu of D&D, all of these authors feature heavily in early D&D writings and Appendix N.

I cannot, and do not, claim that Gygax based his readings on Bath's recommendations. There isn't evidence for that and many ideas come to people at the same time. What I am claiming is that it is possible that Bath's love of the same fiction as Gygax, the fact that Gygax's own gaming rules were influence by Bath, and that Gygax himself had articles published in Wargamer's Newsletter, might suggest that Bath's list might have inspired Gygax to create games based on the fiction he loved.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

When Discussing Early RPGs and Wargames, Let's Not Forget the British Scene Part 1

Issues 6 and 7 of the 1956 British Model Soldier Society Bulletin

This is the first in a series of posts discussing the British Wargaming Scene and D&D. The second post can be read here.

The recently released Secret of Blackmoor documentary provides a lot of information about how the modern role playing game developed and how important the Minnesota Wargaming scene was in the creation of Dungeons & Dragons. Particular importance is given to the quasi-roleplaying events created by David Wesely around 1969 called Braunsteins. One way of describing these events is as a combination of postal Diplomacy, traditional Wargaming akin to Strategos, and childhood storytelling games. They were truly innovative and a direct antecedent to Dungeons & Dragons, especially with regard to the role playing of characters and the playing of campaigns that continued session after session.

The role that David Arneson and his gaming community played in the development of role playing games had too long been hidden in the shadows of Gary Gygax and it's fantastic to see a focus on the co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons. In doing so, however, we risk losing sight of the fact that role playing games were a "perfect storm" of gaming influences coming together and that many of the things that were happening in the Minnesota Wargaming scene were happening elsewhere as well. In the case of the British Wargaming scene, they were happening in a way that also influenced the invention of Dungeons & Dragons and that provided a fertile field of consumers in the UK when the game finally came to the shores of Albion.

When it comes to Miniatures Wargaming, in both the US and the UK, there are a handful of names that loom large and are the wargaming equivalent of Gygax & Arneson: Tony Bath, Donald Featherstone, Jack Scruby, Charles Grant, Donald A. Wollheim, and Captain J.C. Sachs. Not to mention the influence of H.G. Wells, Robert Louis Stephenson, Peter Cushing, and "Cass and Bantock" on the hobby.

I mention all of these people because the British wargaming scene not to take away from the influence that David Arneson and his group had on Gygax and D&D, but to point to another group that had an influence on both Arneson and Gygax. The miniatures wargaming community in the mid-20th Century was small and gamers communicated with one another across the "pond." The fact that Gary Gygax had a letter published in Donald Featherstone's Wargaming Newsletter is proof that they were in communication with one another, or at least that the UK scene was an influence on Gygax's gaming. We also know that Gygax and Perrin's Chainmail rules were influenced by Tony Bath's 1956 and Phil Barker's 1966 rules for Ancient and Medieval Wargaming. The fact that Barker's rules were published in a 1966 copy of the Wargamer's Newsletter suggests that Gygax had been reading the magazine for some time prior to his published letter.

Little Wars: How HG Wells created hobby war gaming - BBC News

But let's take a step away from the direct influence and merely look at the development of wargaming in the UK. The original recreational wargamers, at least in published form, are H.G. Wells and Robert Louis Stephenson. Wells' rules were published, but they bear little mechanical resemblance to modern role playing and wargaming. Casualties in Wells' game were determined via the shooting of a toy cannon and not the roll of dice. If you want to check out the game and play it with its original rules, or with new ones, I recommend the recent Paper Boys edition.

There are a number of wargame rules that follow Wells, I think Charles Grant provides the best description of how wargaming in the UK engaging in many of the same types of play that would result in D&D and it is Grant who will be the focus of today's post. In the May 1955 British Model Soldier Society Bulletin, Charles Grant discuses the state of wargaming at the time in his article "The War Game -- Past, Present, and Future."

His account is highly personalized, but matches the development of the hobby. It began with "casualties being inflicted by means of a table top tennis ball," shifting to the British Model Soldier Society's rules when he was older and began to reenact Napoleonic campaigns. It's interesting to note that these rules also appear to use some form of projectile to determine casualties as Grant states, "these games were more or less based on the Society's rules, the exception being that, having regard to the quality of the troops engaged, no actual firing took place..." It is at this point that Grant begins to calculate losses.

It is soon after his shift to Napoleonics that he began playing in games of another sort, and this is where we begin to see parallel developments in the UK hobby to what would eventually happen in Minnesota. Grant states that on one occasion, "a three-handed game was played [with] a certain amount of diplomatic prelude being necessary. Never were there such Machiavellian machinations...and when the three armies finally met in battle, each contestant was firmly convinced that he had at least one ally!" This description suggests that there were proto-roleplaying elements being inserted into Grant's gaming, thanks to Peter Young, and that it was only the very real Campaign of 1939 (the beginning of WWII) that provided the reason that "the protagonists had to go their separate ways." Grants descriptions in 1955, of his pre-1939 gaming, very much sound similar to that of Arneson's Braunsteins. Here are an example of how role playing campaign elements appeared to enter play, "On the historic occasion when one Hess parachuted on to my native soil (likely this actual event) I received notice from my enemy that a certain Murat had been picked up, having dropped from a balloon 'somewhere in Austria!'" Grant also discusses how his group changed the rules to classify wounded in a manner that added "verismililitude to one's bases and lines of communication."

Two things are made abundantly clear by these examples. First, that Grant and his fellow gamers were playing campaigns similar to what modern roleplayers or wargamers would understand. The fact that their "Campaign of 1805" resulted in very different combats from those in history, combined with the fantastic tale of Murat's balloon drop, suggest that the Grant games engaged in a level of roleplaying, even before they began to incorporate dice into play.

Grant goes on to mention the use of rules developed by "Captain Sachs," though those appear to still require the use of actual projectiles for casualties. It isn't until Grant encounters the "Bantock" rules, probably the Bantock-Cass rules Donald Featherstone mentions as being influential to Tony Bath, that Grant begins to favor wargames that use die to determine outcomes. Grant went on to become one of the major figures in wargaming and it's interesting to see how much "roleplay" existed in the hobby as a whole. We'll see more of that when I discuss Tony Bath's writings in the 1956 Bulletin and his famous Hyborian Campaign.

Before I move on though, I'd like to note again that Donald A. Wollheim was an active participant in the British Model Soldier Society. The reason I'm taking the time to highlight this is that Wollheim was a major US Fantasy and SF publisher and was (in)famous for bringing the first paperback printings of Lord of the Rings to the US with his "Ace" paperback versions.

What I find striking in all of this is the deep connections between wargaming and Fantasy as the hobby developed. From Bath's Hyborian campaign, inspired by Robert E. Howard's Conan, to Wollheim's membership in the BMSS, an active gaming community, the ties are there from the start and they span the Atlantic.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

SENTRY FORCE #0 Provides an Entertaining Glimpse at Tiny Supers' "Gallantverse"

Gallant Knight Games ran the Kickstarter campaign for their Tiny d6 based super hero role playing game Tiny Supers in July/August 2018. I've chatted about Tiny Supers on the Geekerati Podcast, but haven't done a full review of the game. The tl;dr version is that the system has quickly become one of my top 10 super hero rpgs ever. It's easy to learn and very flexible. I loved the system so much that in the blog post for the Tiny d6 episode of the podcast, I did quick conversions of two members of the Fantastic Four (The Human Torch and the Invisible Woman).

I'll do a full review of the Tiny Supers game later this week, but last week Gallant Knight Games' own Alan Bahr sent Kickstarter backers a copy of Sentry Force Prime #0, the first (and hopefully not only) comic book based in their in house Gallant-Verse super setting. I've had a chance to read the comic, several times and in a couple of formats, in order to give it a thorough examination. Before I get deep into the weeds of my analysis of the book, I'd like to give you my overall impression of the book.

TL;DR/Overall Impression

I like it a lot. It's not perfect, and suffers from what I call "pilotitis" when discussing television shows, but it is a fun and engaging book. I love the illustration style and I am impressed with Alan Bahr's attempt at writing a "team origin story" for his first ever comic book script. The short and sweet? Buy it and make sure you read the pdf in "2-page mode" in order to get the most out of Nic Giacondino's art work.

The Good, the Bad, and the Awesome

There are two things that are essential in order for a comic book to "work, you need good writing and good art and in that order. Sentry Force has both. They aren't perfect (as will be discussed in "The Bad" section) but they are good.

When I was an undergrad I took a couple of creative writing classes with an award winning Science Fiction and Fantasy author. Over time, she became one of my most supportive mentors and I am eternally grateful to her. One of the most important lessons she taught me was that "writing a novel is hard, but writing a short story can be even harder." What she meant by this is that readers of novels will allow the writer to meander, but readers of short fiction demand tight, lean, and compelling prose. The medium itself demands it. While comic books may have the benefit of beautiful art, their word count is small and if you are writing a fully contained origin story for one-shot title, you've given yourself quite a writing challenge. There's a reason that the Avengers comic book was written after the characters had their own stand alone books, and there's a reason the Marvel movies started with solo stories rather than jumping right into the first Avengers film. It's easier to create one compelling protagonist at a time than to try to connect readers with multiple protagonists in one go.

It's a difficult challenge to meet, but author Alan Bahr manages this task. The Sentry Force is filled with an interesting array of characters that fit a nice array of super hero archetypes while retaining a touch of their own personality. Velocity, the techie "Iron Man" proxy and the hero who assembles the team, is presented as a man desperately outmatched in a city on the edge of collapse as new villains emerge. He's running as fast as he can to keep the city safe, but he cannot do it alone and what heroes there are in Sentry City have yet to work together in any meaningful way. Velocity wants to help, but all he can do is triage. A fitting metaphor as in his secret identity, he runs a medical supply company. The character is a nice balance of arrogance, vulnerability, and desperation. He might also be, as is revealed in the comic's "voiceover," one of the causes of the rise of meta-humans. Bahr crams in a lot of backstory without a lot of exposition. That gives depth to the setting, but it also leaves room for interpretation and development. Did Velocity's tapping into the Tachyon Bridge merely result in the creation of his Velocity armor, or is it a partial explanation of the emergence of meta-humans? I'm guessing it's just the first, but the second possibility could be developed into some fun story lines.

The first Gallant Knight Games product I backed on Kickstarter was the Powder Mage Roleplaying Game based on the excellent book series by Brian McClellan. It was a very good attempt at adapting McClellan's fictional world to the Savage Worlds rules set. It was especially rich as a Black Powder Mage Universe world guide. In another world, that might have been the only Gallant Knight Games product I purchased, but that would be a world where Alan Bahr didn't work with great artists. From the first time I saw concept art Michael Leavenworth put together for the 2nd Edition of the Tiny Dungeon Role Playing Game, I knew I had to back that game. From their, Bahr introduced me to a number of talented illustrators who's work was different than that being used by other role playing game companies. Of the Gallant Knight Games pool of artists, one stands apart from the others in my esteem. Nicolas Giacondino is the Jack "King" Kirby of the Gallant Knight Games stable. His work is consistently evocative and fun and brings to mind many of my favorite comic book artists. When I see a Giacondino page, his work brings to mind the layouts of Keith Giffen and the art of Matt Wagner, Chris Sprouse, Ty Templeton, and Mike Wieringo. All of these artists have clean line work and demonstrated that the 4-color illustration style of the Silver and Bronze age of comics could be as sophisticated and dynamic as the best of the Iron and Digital Age illustrators.

You can see the influence of these artists on Nic's work in many places, but one place I wanted to examine briefly is in how Giacondino approaches page layouts. Take a look at these three pages with art by Matt Wagner, Keith Giffen, and Nic Giacondino. It should be noted that I intentionally chose one of Giacondino's "least interesting" pages in order to make this quick demonstration, but it should also be clear from even this basic page that Giacondino understands how to tell a story graphically. Each of these pages is a riff on the classic "9 panel page." Two of them are expressly 9 panel pages. Giacondino's page uses the structure of the Giffen (center) page, but uses narrative techniques demonstrated in both the other comics. Notice how Giacondino starts at a wide anger and zooms in one step at each step of the conversation. He's playing with point of view and demonstrating the increasing intensity of the argument between the characters. It's similar to what Wagner is doing in the panels from MAGE #1, which alternates from mid-shot to close-up to match the information being transmitted in the dialogue.

One of the things that stands out in the Giancondino piece, though this really should wait for "The Awesome" section, is that he hand inked the pages. Inking by hand and not digitally or by color coding gives his illustrations a nice depth of space more closely aligned with the Wagner illustration on the left than the more flat-space dominated Giffen art from LEGION OF SUPERHEROES in the middle. Even in a "boring" Giacondino panel, you see variety and texture. We'll see more of his work as I move through "The Bad" and "The Awesome." I do have one small quibble with the page and that is with the lack of window frame behind Camila Cantor. The yellow space behind her is a paneled window and those panels are shown on the next page and add needed background to the page.

Which brings me to "The Bad" elements of the book, none of which are too bad but all of which need to be discussed honestly if I want you to trust my opinion about comics and other media. I really liked this book, but has roughness around the edges.

The first patch of roughness comes in the use of exposition. Bahr doesn't use a lot of it, but there is one case where it needed significant tightening. In presenting Velocity's backstory on page 3, Bahr has the following two sentences back to back. "We were exploring tachyon physics to cure muscular disability and illness, but we stumbled onto the Tachyon Bridge..." and "I had to shut down the research, lock it up, and control it, because what we unlocked with the Tachyon Bridge was bigger than anything I'd ever dreamed of." What is striking here is the repetition of the term Tachyon Bridge. The second sentence could easily read, "I had to shut down the research, lock it up, and control it, because what we unlocked was bigger than anything I'd ever dreamed of." By eliminating the repetition of "with the Tachyon Bridge" it reads quicker and cleaner. There are a couple of small things like this. They aren't deal breakers by any means, but they demonstrate a writer learning to write in a new medium. Comic book story telling needs to be tight and this is a little loose. To be fair to Bahr, I've been reading some older Gardner Fox books (his CROM comic book if you must know) and Bahr's work here is significantly better than Fox's on that title. Let's just say that when you're work is better than Fox's, at any point in his career, you're doing fine.

The second patch of roughness comes in the art work. I know I praised the art earlier and I'll praise it more because Nic is AMAZING, but he's not perfect. Let's take these two pages of action. Where Velocity foils a bank robbery by the villain Darklight. We've got great action flow on the first page, but then WHOAH! What's happening? That top panel on page 5 has me wondering who's PoV we are seeing from. It's not the guy Velocity saved. We can see him on the top of the panel. Who is looking at the world upside down and why? It really pulled me out of the action. Which is too bad, because the action of the panel is fantastic if confusing at this PoV. I can see what Nic is attempting using the split faces on the top of the page, and that's nice, but a small modification really helps the page pop in my opinion.

Sentry Force Pages 4 and 5 (as Published)

What if we didn't feel it was necessary to keep the compelling split faces as the top of the page and instead let them go to the middle of the page? As you can see, since Darklight is in the upper left of the panel when we flip it right side up, we cannot put the face there. We have to have the faces on the bottom of the panel if the action is right side up. And look at that action! It's dynamic. Bullets are flying, Velocity is running to the action, and our hapless customer is falling. The scene has emotional appeal and it brings to my mind the combat panels from the interior of the 2nd edition of the Champions role playing game, and that's a good thing.

Page 5 Image Flipped and Mirrored

Let's add this flipped panel back to the original page and give it a look. To me this is an improvement, especially when viewed in 2-page mode. The action from page to page, and these pages are paired in Acrobat, look dynamic and there is no confusion of the action in my mind. Your mileage may differ. You may prefer the original layout on the page, but this works better for me. Regardless of which works better for you, the illustrations by Nic are a lot of fun.

Sentry Force Pages 4 and 5 (post Tweak)

And that brings me to "The Awesome." There is so much that is great about this book. It starts with a complete vision for the setting. Alan Bahr has stories he wants to tell and he wants you to experience them. Whether we get them as an RPG campaign or as a comic book, I'm sure we will see more of the Gallant-verse. Bahr is a font of ideas on a Walter Gibson (the creator of the Shadow) scale. He's always writing and publishes RPG products on a schedule almost unmatched in the industry. Bahr and Wiggy Wade-Williams are old school writers who pump out quality material on a schedule. I'm in awe of Bahr's abilities and his imagination. He's put together a great team and a compelling universe with characters ranging from the Magician Asher Solomon (a mash-up of Constantine and Dr. Strange who is now one of my favorite super-wizards), Bulwark (a "Brick" and a little more), the Eagle, many more, and...the super-heroine Gallant (the Gallant-verse's "Superman" equivalent). These characters are all discussed in detail in the excellent Tiny Supers RPG and Bahr has provided a fun Gallant-verse adventure in the back of Sentry Force #0 for you to play.

If I wanted to go into "The Awesome" as much as I wanted, I would do a page by page breakdown of all the interesting characters and detailed examination of Nic's artwork. It's really a lot of fun to look at, though I'd desaturate the colors a little to make the very strong line art pop a little more, and he manages a couple of "Perez Pages" where the panels are filled with a horde of characters who manage to be distinct and dynamic and for me the ability to do "Perez Pages" is the measure by which all comic book artists are measured.

Instead of doing all of that, I'll just leave you with the panel introducing Gallant. It's pretty darn EPIC. It has all the emotion and power I want from a character introduction.

Tuesday, April 07, 2020

Watch ROAR (1981) at Alamo Drafthouse's Virtual Cinema

Son of 'Roar' director: 'He was a f—ing a–hole' for making us do ...

There are very few movies that have truly shocked me and ROAR (1981) is absolutely on the top of the list. The film focuses on the story of a family that lives with scores of live lions and fight to protect the lives of these lions from poachers etc. What makes the film shocking is that this film is actually more documentary than drama. Yes, the storyline is fiction, but Tippi Hedron, Melanie Griffith, and family made the film while actually on "set" with the lions and other animals. The film's cast and crew suffered numerous injuries, as the tagline goes "No animals were harmed in the making of this movie. 70 members of the cast and crew were."

I think that John Waters describes the film best when he recommends watching "Tippi Hedren’s real-life snuff movie starring her entire family that was made in 1981 but not released in the US until 2015. Watch, slack-jawed, as Tippi is scalped and her daughter Melanie Griffith mauled by the wild-animal extras who turn out to be the real stars of this nutcase action film." That's a perfect description of the film. Producer, and star, Noel Marshall repeatedly attempts to calm the lions and assert himself as the alpha. These attempts aren't really all that effective and what is supposed to be a gentle film demonstrating the beauty of these magnificent cats, ends up as a stressful experience as you wonder whether the "cast" will make it out alive.

I'm not kidding. This is not a film with "special effects," unless you mean "actually getting mauled by a lion" as your definition of special effects.

It is the most insane film I've ever watched and if you ever wanted to know why there are so many rules about film production and safety, you only need look at ROAR.

Alamo Drafthouse is hosting a virtual cinema viewing
of the movie Wednesday April 8th, 2020 and I recommend you give it a watch if you've got the time. It's an experience not to be missed and Alamo's on to something cool with their virtual cinema events.