Saturday, April 15, 2017

Umbra Britanniae (Shadows of Britain) Savage Worlds, Weird Wars Rome

This product is copyrighted to Pinnacle Entertainment Group 

I have been looking to run an Eldritch Horror style game for quite some time. I knew I wanted to merge the Mythos entity Yig with some concepts from R.E. Howard’s Kull, some kind of serpent men and actual historical events. Originally, I thought to use the excellent Solomon Kane RPG from Pinnacle since the Howard connection already exists, instead I decided to go with Weird Wars since there are sourcebooks that cover several time periods rife with conflict and drama. I could, with some research come up with the basics of these settings, but I decided to work with some pre-existing source material so I can focus on writing the story and not the “fiddly bits”™ of coming up with Hindrances, Edges and backgrounds for myself.

I am a big fan of the Atomic Robo comic book series by Brian Clevinger & Scott Wegener (All their comics are available online for free here and also check out the fantastic Atomic Robo RPG by Mike Olson over at Evil Hat). In “The Shadow Beyond Time” series, Robo finds a being much like the betentacled horrors found in H.P. Lovecraft’s work. What impressed me was the idea that this creature existed outside of time. That is to say that it existed in all points in time at once and the linear nature of the fourth dimension did not affect it. So as Robo perceived it, he was fighting this thing on several instances in his life. To the creature it was all part of a single interaction outside of linear time. Neat idea! (Stolen)

The concept of the game centered on the idea that interacting with the Outer Gods, binds the character’s “fate” to the struggle against the cosmic being. Time is irrelevant to these eternal beings and their goals are unfathomable to us mortals. The basic idea here is that there is part of us that is eternal and exists outside of time. Usually, when we die that drop goes back to an infinite ocean to flow back at some point. When this energy or spirit is touched by one of these entities, it acts as a marker that changes its direction of flow towards the hoary maw of the unfathomable black. Caught in an eddy of

To the Great Old Ones, these spirit essences are but flecks of flotsam in a vast ocean of eternity and rarely give them any notice. Unless some of them acting in consort catch the beings attention. Once the eye of the Outer Void is upon you, you will be forever tied to its fate and thus are trapped in a karmic circle that cannot be broken since it exists in all points in time simultaneously.

The characters fall into a situation where they foil some plot or dispatch a creature/minion of one of these beings and therefore become marked by it. They are then tied to the beings plots throughout time. Sort of like an immortal tick on Azathoth’s back. This basically opens up a massive amount of options for storytelling within a framework. Although the characters start in Imperial Rome controlled Britain circa 105 A.D., they can move on to their experiences during WWI, Biblical times, the Hyborian Age or even on the dusty plains of half terraformed Mars. After a nice long campaign, the characters then piece together the larger plot through the generations and maybe even discover a way to end the cycle.

I started with Weird Wars Rome. Tim, one of our players is a Roman history enthusiast and historical miniatures wargame player. My other two players, Mike and Paul share the same hobbies and also love the era, so that was an easy choice for a springboard point. Once I decided on the setting, I had to work on the specific location and the time period.

Because of the mysterious nature of the game and it involving strange and ancient lore, I chose Britain as my location. The Romans in general considered the isle to be a mysterious place filled with strange beasts and Druidic magic. This is great for dark and creepy stories, much like “Worms of the Earth” by R.E. Howard featuring Bran Mak Morn, King of the Picts. If you are interested in reading this great story, you can find it for free on the Project Gutenberg Australia site. I think it’s some of Howard’s best work ever.

During this period, Rome held southern England and Wales, but have not penetrated too far to the north. It takes place seven years before the completion of Hadrian's Wall. This wall to separate the empire from the barbarians is a little mysterious in and of itself.

“Although Hadrian's biographer wrote "(Hadrian) was the first to build a wall 80 miles long to separate the Romans from the barbarians", reasons for the construction of the wall vary, and no recording of an exact explanation survives.”
-Wikipedia (Some random un-vetted person online)

Although we can infer quite a bit as to why the wall was built, we do not have any record to tell us anything specific. Hadrian was well known for his policies focusing on defense and retaining Roman territory versus the expansionism embraced by his predecessor Trajan and the wall did much for managing trade by giving the Romans a sure way to properly tax goods travelling to and from the north and south. Yet, that little bit of uncertainty can open up a lot of narrative possibilities while still retaining a touch of realism that can make a setting more relatable and real.

Another interesting fact about this particular period is that the identity of the Governor of Britannia from 103-115 A.D. is unknown. Since no record of this person(s) exists, that opens up more opportunities to create whatever I want in his place. Being the most powerful representative of Rome in the country, I can do a lot with whomever I put there. His motivations and actions are completely up to me without breaking the historical feel of the game.

The final reason for this choice was variety in player character options. The Roman Empire was in one of its zenith points as far as raw territory and cultures. The options for PC’s are amazing for several reasons, including:

  • Trajan messing around in the east, gobbling up Dacia or at least, trying to..
  • Egypt having been annexed by Rome.
  • The silk road being active to the far-east.
  • Several large groups of Gallic and German Auxilia being brought in to bring down the almost unending uprisings going on in Britain at the time.
  • The domination of Judea and the Middle East.
  • Control over most of if not all of North Africa.

The players can choose to play just about anything in that time period. All roads lead to Rome!

Before I get a little TLDR on you (too late it’s Plus 10 too long), you may ask, “Hey Jim, why put so much effort into making and researching all these choices? I mean, can’t you just make this up and put it in some nebulous Roman time wherever? Does it really make a difference?” Good question. Let’s go into that.

When all is said and done, this is a horror game. I find that the more you ground the world in a real and palpable way, the more visceral the payoff when the supernatural poop hits the ceiling fan. When players become sufficiently immersed in a setting, narrative and character the intensity of the emotional reaction is greatly increased. This is the real importance of immersion.

One of the main components of horror fiction is to take something that can be considered not only mundane and safe, but somewhat harmless and innocent and put a sinister undertone to it. For example evil dolls. (Before I continue, f**k clowns and evil dolls. Thank you.)

Take something that is as sweet and innocent as a child playing with a doll. Turn that on its ear, film it in black and white, add mood lighting with tons of contrast and play some music in a minor key. Poof! scared off my poo pump. It’s a way of using people’s preconceptions against them by shifting expectations from a safe place to a place of fear and uncertainty.

Same thing holds true here. I create a world that is realistic and grounded in historical fact. I am writing for players have already created a mental picture of how that world works. My players who are the nerdiest history fanboys to geek a dork in spazville have legions of games, books, miniatures and videos about the Roman Empire. It is really easy to play with these preconceptions and use them to solicit an attachment to the game which goes deeper than a work of absolute fiction. This consensus creates a baseline that the players can cling to and I can play with.  I am not trying to say that historical settings are superior to fictional ones. Not at all. I am just saying that it is easier to create these base line realities than conjuring them up from thin air. Collaborative world building is also great fun, but I prefer it when players get some input vs. the GM doing all the world building. That is simply a preference thing.

I really don’t do a lot of mechanical game prep. That is to say I don’t stat out every NPC nor do I use tools to “balance” a combat scenario nor do I ever have anything more than a list of names and skeletal framework for player goals (note: not a plotline, but player character goals. Your characters will never follow a simple plot line). What I do prep is my setting. I make it as complete as I can so that I can make informed and organic choices when reacting to the player’s choices. When you have created a convincing enough reality, you will find that you can live in it and shape it better with simple causality and common sense. This lends an amazing amount of flexibility for you as a storyteller while maintaining the appearance that you are in control.

This ended up being much longer than intended. My apologies. But next time I will go over the player characters and what happened in the prelude scenario.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

BattleTech Alpha Strike Review

Alpha Strike is a game of armored combat in the war torn future of the BattleTech universe. It is a miniatures combat system that is parallel to but not exactly supplementary to the rules found in Total Warfare which is the current incarnation of the Classic BattleTech miniatures game. BattleTech, (originally called BattleDroids but had to change due to copyright issues with Lucasfilm), was published by the now defunct FASA games in 1984 and is now published by Catalyst Game Labs. Alpha Strike streamlines and modernizes the classic game resulting in a faster pace allowing for more units on the table and a slew of options for scenarios, campaigns and a variety of different unit types including air support, infantry, cavalry (tanks) and artillery.

This review will hit on four major points. First, we will look at the book itself checking layout, presentation, art and content. Second, we will go into what is needed to play the game outside of just the rulebook. Third, I will go into the basic game play concepts and mechanics. Lastly, I will provide my general impressions of the game after having played it for a practical point of view.

How does the book look?

The 170 page full color rulebook is available as a hard cover and as a PDF from various retailers including Amazon and at BattleCorps and DriveThruRPG. <Rant> As a side note, if you play games at a local independent game retailer, please purchase your game materials there. Help keep those who provide you with play space in business </Rant>. It’s around $30, but you can find used copies cheaper and you can sometimes score a deal for the PDF. I got it for $15 off DriveThruRPG when it came on sale.

The layout is fairly standard for any Catalyst game with a good index/glossary, tabbed side bar for easy reference when flipping through the book, full color images for charts and examples of play and a nice reference area in the back with all the tables and charts. The book is organized into “tiers” of complexity by giving the reader a good introduction to the basic game terms and mechanics at the beginning, followed up with chapters that introduce new and more complex rules as you read on, ending with a sample campaign and a nice overview of the BattleTech universe and history.

The chapter breakdown is as follows:
1) Introductory Alpha Strike
2) Standard Alpha Strike
3) Abstract Aerospace System
4) Advanced Alpha Strike Options (advanced terrain, artillery, buildings, exotic environmental conditions, smoke, fire and conversion from terrain play to the more familiar hex.
5) Campaign play
6) Campaign Setting: Clan Invasion
7) The BattleTech Universe

Flow is fairly fluid with few obvious editing errors (mind you when you get the PDF it gets updated with errata and editing corrections. For the most up to date version of the game, I recommend going with the PDF.) Most complex rules are immediately followed up with “examples” of practical application. The color plates do a decent job of showing off the Iron Wind Metals miniatures and the new plastic line with plenty of images of the model range. Overall, the layout is very clean, but is somewhat disrupted by the fact that at times the text will refer to tables or charts that are on the previous or next page of the book. It’s a nitpick but when I am reading about a rule I like to be able to easily glance at the chart without having to flip around.

What do you need?

Actual game play requires the Alpha Strike rule book, a play table, some terrain, miniatures, two to four six sided dice and a retractable tape measure reading in inches. It may also require some templates, but samples of those are in the back of the book to photocopy and cut out. The templates are fairly standard and you will find that the two and six inch templates can be easily found in other game lines like Warhammer.

The game uses real line of sight rules for tabletop terrain. Weapon range bands work out all the way to 42” and beyond. It can be played on just about any table top, but anything smaller than a 4’ x 6’ table will make maneuver and long range snipers and missile boats less effective. Alpha Strike, like Classic BattleTech uses 6mm or “z-scale” terrain for buildings, structures and wooded areas. Most hills and other terrain features work universally. Much like just about any other miniatures game a good amount of terrain really adds to game play. The BattleTech Wiki has a bunch of PDFs that can be printed out, cut and folded into some pretty neat terrain for free. If you have a few extra ducats you might want to try GameCraft Miniatures. They have a great line of 6mm sci-fi buildings for very cheap which look absolutely wonderful.

Once the table is set, you will need some models or markers for your units. Of course, the best option is to have painted miniatures out on the table. If you have the BattleTech Introductory Boxed Set, you already have a slew of models. If not, there are some great Alpha Strike Lance Packs out there that get you four ‘Mechs for less than $15 and come with full color laminated stat cards for each ‘Mech. These Lance Packs are sold in a variety of units that are separated by battlefield role. For example Battle Lance, Support Lance, Fire Lance, Recon Lance, Pursuit Lance and Striker Lance. These battlefield roles take on more significance with the Alpha Strike Companion which I will review separately. Of course, individual models are available from Iron Wind Metals including many “archive” models regularly unavailable to retailers that you can order for a small extra fee. I highly recommend getting the intro boxed set listed above. It runs about $50 and comes with 24 unpainted plastic minis, game boards, background info, painting guide, dice and a poster of the Inner Sphere. The costs break down to a little more than $2 a model plus a bunch of bonus stuff. The Lance Packs are also a great deal and are a cheap and easy way to expand your model collection. Compare that to $10 - $15 a model for the metals, it’s a great way to go. Alpha Strike uses all the same figures for the BattleTech classic game, so if you have some old minis lying around you are good to go.

Once you have some models and terrain, the Master Unit List tool gives you access to stats for pretty much all the infantry, vehicle aerospace and ‘Mech units along with all their variant load-outs. You can build a force randomly based on what you have or you can go further and separate searches by Era or Faction making it easy to build campaign forces. Master Unit List or MUL allows you to play with point values and print out stat cards for the units you choose. This army building tool is completely free and is updated with just about everything you could ever imagine.

All in all, the game can cost as little as $60 to get started with the rule book and two lance packs; terrain and table notwithstanding.

How does it play?

Basic game play is very similar to classic BattleTech. The game function is as follows. Note this is a rundown of the most basic game play. More detailed rules that cover Battlefield Intelligence, artillery plotting, aerospace integration, and more are detailed in the rule book.

1) Roll for initiative. For the base game an unmodified roll of 2d6 added together. Winner chooses who will move first. Many of the more advanced rules modify this roll due to several factors like Battlefield Intelligence scores and special abilities like “Command ‘Mech.” The winner of this roll decides who moves first.

2) The player that moves first moves a unit. Then their opponent moves a unit, back and forth until all units have moved. Units have a “Move” stat listed in inches and can be modified by a sub-designation like “j” for Jump which allows the unit to move over obstacles by flying into the air. Terrain factors heavily into movement and can affect the number of inches of movement it takes to overcome things like woods, rough terrain and elevation changes. All movement is listed in inches. Facing changes do not affect movement, unlike the classic game.

3) Once all the units have moved the player that won the initiative can shoot. All combat is simultaneous so initiative for firing is not extremely useful. If a unit is removed from play during this combat turn, but has not yet fired it remains in play until it returns fire and is then removed.

Each machine has a Skill rating which represents the expertise of the pilot for both piloting and gunnery. This score represents the base number one has to meet or exceed on a total of two six sided dice to succeed at any given task, like shooting. Of course there are several modifiers for target agility, range, movement and cover that can change the target number. The math for to-hit modifiers works almost exactly like they do in the classic game with the exception of the target movement modifier. I will go into that in a bit.

When attacking, players must determine if the model has line of sight to the target and has the target within its viable firing arc. Line of sight is determined visually from model to model and the percentage of that model that is visible through terrain.

Units will have damage values for each range band (Short, Medium and Long). Sometimes these can be 0 for vehicles that may not have weapons that extend to that range or the value can drop as the vehicle takes damage. If a successful roll to hit is made, the appropriate damage value is applied to the targets armor and then structure once the armor is breached. Every attack that reaches the internal structure has a chance for a “critical hit” which is rolled off a table that determines if any of the machines vital equipment is damaged or destroyed. Things like head shots and ammunition explosions can kill a ‘Mech outright. The vehicle record card has spots to track the various critical effects.

Firing weapons can sometimes generate heat buildup. This is represented by the OV or Overheat Value. This value can be added to any weapon attack as long as it can do at least one point of damage at that range band. The player must declare before rolling that it is using the units OV and marks off a point of overheat. Each point of overheat slows the vehicle and disrupts firing. A vehicle can have a total of 3 overheat points before it shuts down. The only way to bleed off heat is to refrain from firing for an entire turn. At the end of that turn the vehicle can bleed off one point of heat if it has not fired. If the machine generates several points of overheat it will take several turns to bleed off the heat and cumulative negative effects apply for each point of overheat.

4) Once all damage is resolved and destroyed units are taken off the board, both sides re-roll initiative and start the new turn.

For those of you who have played Classic BattleTech, these concepts are very familiar and in many cases identical. In many ways these games are extremely similar. Alpha Strike is based on the BattleForce 2 system which was designed to bring a strategic level of play to BattleTech by abstracting most of the minutia of BattleTech allowing you to play several detachments of vehicles and infantry up to the Battalion level and beyond. The main difference comes in the form of granularity vs. abstraction.

All games are simulations and therefore abstractions, but some games have a higher level of detail and use several layers of abstraction to define actions. Classic BattleTech is very detailed. Most vehicles have several weapon systems ranging in capabilities. Vehicles also have several hit locations with their own pools of armor and structure. This results in several rolls per unit and sometimes weapon with varying levels of damage spread out over the units hit locations that have to be rolled out individually. Imagine doing that for 4-12 units a side in Heavy or Assault ‘mechs that could take multiple hits to whittle down and has more guns than a your average Army Reserve base. I have played in Classic BattleTech games that have literally taken several days to completely work out. This level of detail is great for small games, especially if you are using it concurrently with the A Time of War RPG since each detail of the combat is worked out down to the individual armor points adding to the clarity of the narrative. For large engagements, it can be problematic. What Alpha Strike does is to consolidate those abstractions and cut down the levels of granularity to maintain the same “feel” but cut down on the steps needed to resolve combat. Let’s look at the top level differences between Classic and Alpha Strike BattleTech.

Blank Alpha Strike Stat Card
Scale – Although the models and terrain are the same scale (1:285), the way that the range bands work makes the game feel like it is slightly larger. For example, a sort range weapon like the Machine Gun or Small Laser has a three one inch hex range in BattleTech. In Alpha Strike all short range weapons work within six inches. Medium range which is the sweet spot for most ‘Mechs extends to 24 inches which is just shy of the 27 hex range of the longest ranged weapons in BattleTech. The 42 inch max range in Alpha Strike is nearly twice the distance we are used to in the classic game. Engagements get hot quickly since even the slow machines move 6 inches a turn while speed daemons like the Dasher can move up to 26 inches. Although the models and table are the same size, the variance in ranges and movement alter the fundamental feel of the scale by making the threat radius of every unit larger.

Skill – The original game has two pilot skills, Gunnery and Piloting. The effectiveness of the pilot is tracked as one number in Alpha Strike. This Skill value applies to both piloting and gunnery.

Size – Machine size is not measured in tonnage but by the Size stat. Generally size 1 units are Light ‘Mechs, 2 are Medium, 3 are Heavy and 4 are Assault. Instead of having multiple calculations factoring the unit’s tonnage for melee damage, the Size stat is used to simplify the math.

TMM Target Movement Modifier – Perhaps one of the biggest changes in the game is TMM. Fast units are generally more agile and harder to hit than their slower counterparts. Instead of individually tracking the movement distance of each unit on the field, each unit has an intrinsic TMM value. If the unit moves at all the TMM functions as the to-hit modifier for its movement, even if it hasn’t used its full move.

Movement (mode) – Movement is listed as a value in inches. This may be followed by a mode in parenthesis after that value to modify the kind of movement that the vehicle can use. Jump or hover movement has different rules regarding terrain so keep an eye on the code. There is no walk and run move, just a single movement value rated in inches.

Role – One of the coolest things about Alpha Strike is that it assigns tactical roles to units depending on their capabilities. For example, a Marauder with 2 PPC’s and an AC5 is categorized as a “Sniper” while a 100 ton Atlas is categorized as a “Juggernaut”. These roles can be used later on with the Companion rules to create a meta game that grants free bonuses for lances, stars or level 1’s that are filled with units that have a specific battlefield role. Mixing and matching units within your detachments can greatly affect their effectiveness on the field.

Overheat OV & Heat Scale – Some units can overheat. If a machine has enough heat dissipation to fire all its weapons and move without overheating it will have an OV of zero. Machines that have more guns than sense have an OV value. Instead of tracking each individual weapons heat, the player can simply decide to push the envelope and add the OV value to the damage of an attack at any range where they have a point or more of damage value. For example a ‘Mech with a Medium Range Damage Value of 4 and an OV value of 2 can do six points of damage at medium range if it decides to overheat. It will mark down a point of overheat and apply a -2’ movement and -1 to hit since it has overheated. The only way to bleed off heat is to not fire at all for a turn. Each point of heat represents a -2” move and a -1 to hit which is cumulative. A pilot can build up to three points of overheat before it reaches Shutdown. So a ‘Mech with 3 points of overheat will be at -6” move and -3 to hit.

Damage – Instead of tracking each individual weapons damage rating, Alpha Strike abstracts the damage of the vehicle as a whole within three range bands, Short, Medium and Long). An LRM missile boat will have a strong Long Range damage value while a machine loaded out with small lasers will have a good Short Range damage value. All hits are determined in one roll. This is where we lose all the granularity of the classic game and things start to work out less like the board game and more like the fiction. I have seen light and medium ‘Mechs disappear in one shot after getting on the wrong end of a Juggernaut. Medium ‘Mechs have a moderate amount of survivability in armor and some in agility and in the right numbers and combinations can be more effective than their heavier counterparts but can easily be outmaneuvered by lights. This system also makes it more important to maneuver within the range bands that best suit the unit you are commanding.

Special Abilities – The problem with too much abstraction vs. granularity is that units can fall flat and seem too uniform. This lack of individuality can give players fewer tactical options and the game ends up lacking dimension. BattleTech is FULL of options. In fact there is a whole book dedicated just to the tech options. Since Alpha Strike doesn’t really account for individual weapon systems and support systems, and abstracts damage, armor and structure to a uniform instead of per location many of the special tech options for these individual systems appear to be lost. Alpha Strike compensates for this by using Special Abilities that are listed with a code at the bottom of the stat card. For example IF 0/2/2 can be listed as a special ability. IF stands for “Indirect Fire” and the list of numbers indicate damage done per range band. A ‘Mech with this Special Ability can fire weapons indirectly by using a spotter and apply the listed damage values to the Indirect Fire. A ‘Mech with the ECM special ability is equipped with powerful Electronic Countermeasures which can be used to disrupt communications and certain other special abilities that require electronic transmissions like Active Probe sensors. Much of the granularity of the classic game is represented with a special rule list that grant an extra layer of options to many units.

PV – For those of you who have played Classic BattleTech, you may remember the Build Value system which was complex and sometimes inaccurate. In Alpha Strike, the Point Value or PV of a unit is calculated far more simply. From the playtests I have run and played, the PV value system works fairly well as a foundation for setting up a scenario. Of course, factors like objectives, terrain and detachment composition apply to game balance, but overall the PV system tends to work fairly well in balancing out forces. The details for calculating these values are presented in the Companion, but all the units from the Master Unit List will all have the calculated PV on their stat card.

Looking at the Appendix of the base book, there are a lot of charts and tables. This is the way of BattleTech, but generally speaking you will only need three main tables:

1) The Target Modifiers table to determine to-hit values.
2) The Movement Modifiers table to determine how terrain will affect the distance a unit can move.
3) The Critical Hits table to determine special damage effects.

The rest of the tables will rarely be used unless you like using tons of special stuff like Aerospace fighters and artillery, but as you master the game, adding new components can be relatively easy and can add a lot of dimension. You can easily determine the level of complexity and additional granularity you want to add to any given scenario by using or omitting these rules.

What did you think Jim?

To be completely honest, for the most part Alpha Strike is simply a dumbed down version of classic BattleTech and AeroTech. It’s a great way to play a larger game, both in perceived scale and in number of models on the field with little to no real headache or overwhelming crunch. It’s fun enough to play but lacks some of the elements that I personally look for in a well put together miniatures game. This is mostly due to the fact that the classic game was originally written in 1984 which was far before other games which eventually defined the hobby changed the way we look at miniatures wargaming. The basic Alpha Strike game has the fluidity and intuitive rules of a far more modern game and a more streamlined and useful point value system for game balance, but it lacks a detachment construction meta-game.

Games like Warhammer and Warmachine have a deep and complex meta-game that create another layer of play that takes place during army construction. Building an army with units that complement each other or create combos or synergies is as much a part of the game as anything you do on the table. BattleTech offers little in the way of that meta and Alpha Strike offers some more, but not significantly.

That being said, the Alpha Strike Companion adds considerably to the meta and more options to add greater levels of granularity to the game as optional rules. With the core book being under 200 pages, it seems to me like Alpha Strike on its own is an incomplete game. I would have much rather seen a larger core book with the contents of both AS and the Companion thus bringing it more in line with the rest of the BT line whose books average around 400 pages.

I had picked up Alpha Strike years ago when it came out, played around with it and put it away. Once the Companion came out, it changed the whole game and the game was GOOD.

In the final analysis, Alpha Strike on its own is a great way to play BattleTech in a larger scale at a faster pace. If you like seeing a score of ‘Mechs out on the table and don’t want to sacrifice an entire weekend to a scenario, this is the game for you. If you already play classic BattleTech, this is a great way to use much of what you have in a new and exciting way for a very small investment. The online tools offered by the Master Unit List (MUL) give you the option to build formations easily and without the added expense of the volumes of record sheets you would otherwise have to buy for classic BattleTech. If you are looking for a game with several tactical layers and a robust meta, Alpha Strike falls a bit short, unless you get the Companion which I will review later on.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Alpha Strike - The Modern Take on BattleTech

It is a great time to be a BattleTech fan. With Mechwarrior Online having its two year anniversary, the new turn based BattleTech video game being fully funded through Kickstarter by Harebrained Schemes (who brought us Shadowrun Returns) and a slew of new sculpts for many of the “unseen” models like the Warhammer, Locust and Marauder it is a true renaissance for the venerable wargame.

 NewWarhammer Sculpt
Marauder Concept Art
Our gaming group has been playing the BattleTech miniatures game and its RPG “A Time of War/MechWarrior” for nearly two decades. One of the reasons why this game has seen so much play is due to the fact that it covers a lot of gaming real-estate. First off, it is one of the longest running and most detailed game settings ever created. With volumes of source material ranging from RPG and Miniatures sourcebooks to comics, novelizations, video games, toys, an expansive Wiki and even a television series. It is one of the best developed game settings of all time. Along with the rich fiction and source material, BattleTech offers hundreds of models ranging from 2.5 million ton Warships to individual infantrymen. Playing out through nearly a thousand years of recorded cannon, BattleTech is one of the most expansive and diverse miniatures games out there. This allows for a nearly unlimited number of different scenarios and tactical challenges that add to the richness of the RP experience.

Of course, the game is far from perfect. At its core, BattleTech is a simple table top game developed in the 1980’s. This was a time period where complex book keeping, tons of charts and tables and overall clunky mechanics were the norm and it shows. Large games at the company level (12 models per side) can go on for several hours and sometimes days depending on the level of detail used. The system has grown over the years and has added so many expanded and optional rules that it span several large source books (Total Warfare, Strategic Operations, Tactical Operations, TechManual and Interstellar Operations). This may seem like a lot of overkill, but keep in mind that these sourcebooks handle more than just ‘Mech combat. The rules expand on infantry, vehicles, aerospace fighters, warships and battle armor which at some point in the game’s history represented individual standalone games like AeroTech and BattleTroops. 

Along with the outdated game play, the model quality offered by Ral Partha and now Iron Wind Metals is lacking compared to models from Citadel or Privateer Press for example. Years of poor design and lack of updated sculpts has left the BattleTech miniatures catalog substantially lacking.  Additionally, many of the iconic ‘Mechs that defined the original look of the game are no longer available due to various copyright issues. Many of these machines have been updated in Project Phoenix, but still lack the same level of dynamism and detail wargamers have become accustomed to in recent decades. As you can see above though, the model quality is improving drastically, especially with the new unseen models.

That is not to say that Classic BattleTech is a bad game. BattleTech has entertained gamers since 1984 and the current owners of the franchise, Catalyst Game Labs have done a great deal of work to maintain the game’s viability. The most important advance towards the goal of viability, in my opinion has been the advent of Alpha Strike in 2013.

Alpha Strike is based on the mechanics developed for Battleforce 2 published in 1997 which was intended to be an abstracted system that would allow you to run games up to the battalion level (36+ units). This far more modern and streamlined system allows for company level games (12 or so models per side) to be resolved in just a few hours while retaining the distinct “feel” of BattleTech.

Alpha Strike feels like a modern miniatures game. Its core mechanics are very simple and require a minimal amount of book keeping while retaining the basic factors that make BattleTech... BattleTech. Key concepts like ablative armor, internal structure, critical hits, heat management and movement modalities remain, but are cut down to bare basics. Instead of individual tonnages you have a Size value ranging from 1 to 4 representing the Light, Medium, Heavy and Assault classes. Instead of walk and run move you have a simple movement score listed in inches that can be modified with a “j” for jump if the machine is jump capable. Instead of individual hit locations with their own armor and internal structure scores, these concepts are abstracted and streamlined by one score for armor and another for internal structure which represents the overall survivability of any given unit. The various weapons on a vehicle are abstracted into simple damage values for Short, Medium and Long range that are applied after a single to hit roll. Critical Hits are applied any time damage is taken to the internal structure. Instead of rolling to see if a hit caused a critical, the critical chart has several “no effect” entries to represent the failure to score a critical, consolidating the process to one roll.

The game is also completely terrain based and does not require a hex board to work. Ranges and movement are done in inches with the hex base aiding in determining fire arcs. Since the non-uniform scale of the hundreds of models available in the line is an issue, size templates can be used to standardize the size values of vehicles and ‘mechs. Alpha Strike also uses blast templates and deviation for artillery and other area effects.

Instead of full page sheets with hundreds of little bubbles of armor, several different weapon systems and lists of critical spaces, Alpha Strike condenses all the pertinent vehicle information in a sheet the size of a business card, complete with spaces for tracking criticals, heat and damage. Additionally, Catalyst has put up a Master Unit List website that allows you to browse through almost every single unit ever created for the BattleTech universe. Not only can you use this free tool to build your detachments easily, but you can browse by era or affiliation, making it easy to create units for a particular campaign, faction or era.

Classic BattleTech Record Sheet
Alpha Strike Record Card

Along with streamlined and terrain based game play, the Alpha Strike Companion provides unit composition and scenario rules along with a simplified point value system adding a whole new level of meta game which we see in so many other miniatures game systems. Pilot abilities, unit special abilities and equipment “quirks” can also come into play for an added level of detail, but with little added crunch. With the use of battlefield roles, unit composition abilities and a more practical and logical rules set, games take on a completely new dimension that actually plays like the fiction reads in many cases.

Aerospace support is seamlessly integrated into Alpha Strike using an innovative system that abstracts the airspace over your tabletop battle. Air support in the form of bombs, strafing runs or swirling dogfights can be represented easily without taking any focus from what is happening on the table. The Companion further expands on that system by allowing you to play out the battle in space in a similar way.

Artillery, tanks, v-tols, transports, support vehicles, protomechs, power armor and regular infantry are also included to varying degrees of detail creating a comprehensive level of play options that not only match the level of detail in Total Warfare, but in some ways exceeds it since you can personalize units and formations to be designed for certain mission parameters.

Alpha Strike is a strange product. That is to say that this is a parallel product to Total Warfare, Strategic, Tactical and Interstellar Operations. Classic BattleTech is still the flagship game in the BattleTech line and is stull supported by Catalyst, giving players the choice to stay with the venerable wargame and/or play the more modern and fast paced version of the game for minimal investment. I am pretty heavily vested into Classic BattleTech. I own literally hundreds of dollars’ worth of books and own hundreds of models for the game that I have been collecting since the 1980’s. The fantastic thing about it is that for about a $30 investment in Alpha Strike and the Alpha Strike Companion on DriveThru RPG I can integrate Alpha Strike into my gaming lexicon. My miniatures and all the campaign source material still apply, but I have the option of running games either in Classic BattleTech or Alpha Strike depending on the size of game I have and the amount of time I have to play it out. Unlike other game companies that alienate so much of their fan base by creating new editions that basically nullify so much of the previous editions products, Catalyst simply decided to expand upon what already exists and simply provide more options.

In further posts I will be doing a detailed review of Alpha Strike, the Alpha Strike Companion and the A Time of War RPG. I will also be detailing the progress of our SLDF campaign, the process of collecting and painting the models, character creation and how it plays out in A Time of War and Alpha Strike.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Orccon 2014 and what it has taught me about the RPG hobby

It’s time to look back at another great convention. I am pleased to say that despite a handful of challenges, Orccon 2014 was a great success with over 1800 attendees and I hope that everyone who attended had a great time and took advantage of the wide variety of games and events available.  I am not going to go into any of the nuts and bolts of RPGs at Orccon, but what I want to do is go into some thoughts about the games I played and what I learned about our hobby.

I had the pleasure of having two special guests at Orccon this year. John Wick was here running his Houses of the Blooded LARP along with Wicked Fantasy and playtests of his new project Wield. I also had Todd VanHooser showing his Adventures Under the Laughing Moon RPG, based on his Laughing Moon Chronicles. Although, not as a special guest, +Mike Olson was here play-testing his wonderful Thrilling Fate game based on Sparks Nevada, Marshall on Mars a character from the Thrilling Adventure Hour.

James A. Forest interviews John Wick at Orccon 2014

I sat in on Todd and Mikes games and had an opportunity to talk to John and in so doing I came away with some interesting new perspectives and ideas. Not only did I learn some new ways to look at RPG systems but I also came away with a different way to look at success, failure and the way we come to determine these results in games.

I also had the opportunity to run two sessions of Shadowrun 5th edition through the Catalyst organized play model they called “Missions”. This was a unique opportunity for me since I had never had the chance to see any organized play from the GM perspective. I had played in some Pathfinder Society and RPGA games but never had the chance to see what that is like from the other side of the screen.

John Wick and Todd VanHooser, are polar opposites when it comes to RPG design. I have known John and his work for quite some time and actually witnessed a lot of his process in producing Legend of the Five Rings and 7th Sea. This guy is obsessed with roleplaying in the best possible way. I think of him as an innovator and a unique creative force. As such, his games are quirky and thought provoking in ways that you rarely see from more mainstream RPGs. His current success is a game called Houses of the Blooded as well as its systemic derivative, a samurai RPG named Blood and Honor.

These games work on the basic premise that failure is as dramatic as success and the system should guide you in sharing the narrative choice of success and failure. This is achieved by giving the player a choice to succeed or fail by making a roll and the GM the ability to choose between success and failure if the roll is failed. This allows players to “choose to fail” if it is more dramatically appropriate.

As a narrative choice, John describes this as “failing forward” or giving the player the ability to advance a plot by failing. The example he brought forth in the video above is Indiana Jones. In these films we constantly see Indie fail, but the consequences of those failures provided excitement, drama and tension. When he failed to determine the correct weight of the gold statue, it resulted in one of the most memorable scenes in film as Indiana had to rush to escape a giant rolling boulder.

This kind of perspective on storytelling is exactly the kind of thing that I have come to expect from John and it has given me much to think about when it comes to how players and GMs can collaborate in telling a story. Accepting defeat can certainly be counter intuitive to traditional play, but to introduce a mechanic where a player is encouraged to choose failure is even more of a departure from the norm.

Interestingly, my first experience with something like this was in a game of L5R, which was also written by John Wick. In samurai fiction, it is common for characters to exhibit a great deal of sacrifice in service to their lords. In my very first non-playtest game of L5R I had a character intentionally loose a duel in order to preserve face for his lord and his friend. I intentionally chose to take the lowest dice in my result for the roll in order to serve the goals of my intended narrative.

Todd VanHooser’s game, Laughing Moon is based on the fantasy world described in his novels, the Laughing Moon Chronicles. Here, we have a game that is designed to represent a set narrative and mythology. Although Laughing Moon’s mechanics play very similarly to any Dungeons and Dragons type fantasy game, the main draw is the incredibly rich world which it is designed to portray. The beautifully illustrated books make this world come to life in its vivid depictions of the lands, people and unique myth of the Laughing Moon Chronicles.

After talking to John about his games, going over to Todd’s two tables in Open Gaming was quite a shift. There is a large divide between John’s approach to RPG design and Todd’s. John is a game designer first. He is all about creating systems to tell compelling stories and creating interesting characters. Todd on the other hand, is an author first. He has a distinct vision for his fiction and designed a game around simulating the action within that fiction. Todd’s rules are more rigid and give the players less agency than in something like Houses of the Blooded. That is not to say that there is no mechanic for player agency in Laughing Moon, which there is, but it is definitely not the focus of the system. Houses of the Blooded is a game is designed to collaboratively create story outcomes, while Under a Laughing Moon is designed to create a physical framework to determine the outcome of various choices and random results within a set reality. What we are looking at here is two basic perspectives on how people develop RPGs which are both valid but different.

This brings me to Mike Olson’s Thrilling Fate game featuring Sparks Nevada, Marshall on Mars. Here Mike brings a unique perspective on creating a game that is designed to work within an already established narrative style. In Thrilling Fate, players are given the opportunity to work inside a rich fictional world, but are given tools designed to guide them in interpreting the characters style but not necessarily their substance.

Thrilling Fate is a stripped down version of the FATE Core or Accelerated models. It is so stripped down in fact that it’s hardly recognizable as a FATE game. The main mechanic of “Aspects” is the same, but just about everything else is different. The most distinctive difference is something called a "Cue".

In Thrilling Fate a Cue is an action or behavior that is typical and integral to the character. It's a characterization that is emblematic of a characters style or behavior. Whenever a player chooses use a Cue by following its suggested behavior, the player refreshes an Aspect and may invoke it at any future time. Did I mention that a player starts with all his Aspects exhausted at the beginning of the game and has to use Cues to open them up for play? Yep, that's right partner. You better get to acting like your name is Sparks Nevada or your in for a world of hurt.

Here Mike has created a mechanic that not only incentivizes but guides players into playing a character. Cue's give a player a good idea about how a character acts and clues us in on typical behaviors for the character. This creates a system that can allow practically anyone to play just about any character and stay relatively true to his/her nature. It's a game that promotes player agency AND creates a game built around a particular fiction.

Now that I have gone through what I played, let's talk about what I ran. I ran Shadowrun 5th edition for the Catalyst Demo Team. I did this like iron GM style since my first game ran long so it was basically 9 hours of Shadowrun straight with nothing but a measly smoke break. This was the first time I have ever run games for any kind of organized play and I would like to thank the Catalyst Game Labs for fast tracking my application so I could run these games at the last minute.

Here is what I came away with from this experience. I love running games for people that are excited about gaming. I had some people who drove in from as far as Barstow to play SR and everyone was totally engaged in the game. Thanks folks, you are awesome.

Lastly, I learned that I am not a fan of the way adventures are written for these kinds of games. I understand that it's difficult to put any nuance in a game that is supposed to be played in a number of different places by a great many people with the same measurable metrics and results. It has to be almost impossible to make an adventure that isn't a straight railroad and still meet all these criteria.

I have already written a review of Shadowrun 5th edition, but now that I have had a few more games under my belt its time for an update. Which will be forthcoming, but for now I bid you good gaming!

Monday, December 9, 2013

Rolling for tasks in FATE, it's not just about creating tension.

This may be a bit of an odd interpretation, but it works for me fairly well in FATE. I never look at task rolls as a conflict resolution. I see actions as a way to incorporate Aspects into the story and therefore as part of creating the narrative. Task resolution in FATE rubs a lot of people the wrong way because we are used to tasks and conflicts as being the engine that drives drama and tension. When you look at it, FATE does not really work that way. In most cases, there is little to keep players from succeeding at any given thing they really want to do. It all depends on what price the player wants to pay to succeed. The meta is skewed in favor of the player.

The task resolution system in FATE does not exist solely to create tension. It can, of course be used to do so, but it’s not the sole reason for its existence. What the dice are really there to do is to give the players and GM a paintbrush to create a dynamic scene. Task resolution revolves around describing action adding a random effect and using that to see what lengths the character has to go through to create the desired effect. The player must then incorporate the characters Aspects to generate the desired outcome which in turn makes the description of every dramatic action an extension of who the character is and not her statistical makeup.

In FATE the GM uses Compels to drive tension and drama. Complications brought about by Compels are driven by the characters features and are therefore personalized to the characters narrative. This is not to say that task resolution cannot add drama. “Success at cost” situations are also intended to give consequences for heroic feats. The GM is provided with these mechanics that make up a dramatic toolkit. I find this more interesting than depending on the randomness of something like a critical failure or success or depending on finely tuned encounter balance which can go south quickly.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Addressing concerns about the upcoming Strateticon RPG Space.

To Strategicon RPG attendees,

My name is Jim Sandoval and I am the Supervisor of RPG's at the Strategicon series of events. I would like to take the opportunity to address some concerns from our RPG community regarding our new venue at the Hilton starting with OrcCon 2014 and for the foreseeable future.

For the past couple of years the Strategicon series of events have enjoyed a great deal of growth. This is  due to the fantastic outpouring of support from LA area gamers and the great lengths our 100% volunteer staff have gone to in order to provide the best gaming experience for our attendees.

Because of this growth we are all excited about moving to the larger and much better lit LAX Hilton starting this upcoming year. Although the Hilton provides us with some much  needed additional space to expand into, this space differs greatly from the Raddison and Sheraton. In this case, much of the additional space takes the form of large ballrooms. We are limited to very few smaller, “single room” type spaces like the cabanas we all enjoyed at the Raddison or the sectioned off areas on the second floor at the Sheraton. RPG's has been steadily expanding for the past few years. Even if I were to take ALL of the small conference room space for RPG's I would have no room to expand whatsoever and would simply leave the problem for someone else to solve. That is not how I roll.

For this reason and this reason alone, Our Event Coordinator Tim Keennon and I have decided to put RPG's in a 7000 Sq foot ballroom and allow the small allotment of conference room space to go to Pathfinder Soc, RPGA and LARPS.

This has nothing to do with how Strategicon views RPGs and RPG fans. Rest assured that I would shake the pillars of heaven and hell for my department.  RPGs are my passion and you will find no greater advocate for RPGs than myself. Please remember that Strategicon is not for profit and supports all forms of gaming equally.

I understand your concerns and would like to assure you that I have taken steps to make this as viable a choice as possible. I will be erecting a heavy duty rod and curtain system to parse out the room into smaller areas with tables. This space will divide 25 tables within the 7k sq foot ballroom to ensure the optimum level of sound absorption. This will be a large space for 25 tables with low acoustic tile ceilings and it is our hope that we will be able to minimize noise echo.

When I was approached with this plan, I have to admit I was skeptical at first and frankly still am. I am not going to sit here and promise you the moon, I am not a salesman.  Best I am is a CSR/CPA. But what I can tell you is that I am going to do my utmost to make this situation as viable as possible and before I agreed to taking the ballroom space, I was assured that if there was an outpouring of negative feedback after OrcCon that we would revisit this choice and come to a better decision.

In conclusion, I just want to leave you with this thought. There is nothing I want more than to have every single person walking into RPGs or the convention in general walk back out again with the joy and satisfaction of having had the best experience I can provide. For no other reason than the fact that I love gaming and want to share that passion with everyone I come in contact with. I know that many of us find it disturbingly easy to become cynical about everything and sometimes that is justifiably so, but I guarantee that the rest of the Strategicon staff and I are doing everything we can to make your experience a great one. If we fail to do so, that is only because we are human and will strive to make it better next time around.

Best regards on this holiday season,
Jim Sandoval.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Conan the Barbarian RPG. FAE/D&D 3.5 conversion.

CONAN Fate Accelerated Edition

Know, oh Fate lover, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars. Conan FAE edition is designed for people who wish to adventure in the world of Hyboria. The land crafted by Robert E. Howard for his iconic sword and sorcery hero Conan of Cimmeria.

To properly use this hack there are three things players should have. First, a working knowledge of the Hyborian world as depicted by Howard, De Camp, Jordan, Thomas and the various others who brought Conan to life in novels, short stories and comics. For a PDF of this mod, you can find it HERE. And a bonus Character Sheet.  As another resource thanks to +James Forest here is a fantastic primer on the Hyborian world written by Rowan Walkingwolf.

Second, is a copy of the Mongoose Games Conan RPG (currently out of print). This game is in essence a blend of the 3.5 D&D version of Mongooses Conan setting, FAE and Fate. Concepts like Class and Race are described in the Mongoose RPG in great detail and are used as point of reference for several of the Aspects and Stunts in this game.

Third, is a copy of Evil Hats, Fate Accelerated Edition and Fate Core. This game uses some mechanics from both and players should have access to these rules in order to make sense of what is to follow.


The High Concept and Trouble Aspects remain the same. The three remaining Aspects are specific to Conan FAE.

Race – The varied peoples of Howard’s Hyboria are very distinctive. The reactions of a civilized Aquilonian will vary widely from a citizen of dark and mysterious Stygia. The land from which a character hails will have a great deal of bearing as to who she is and how she interacts with other cultures. This Aspect can easily be Invoked or Compelled for various social reasons that are obvious if you are familiar with Howard’s work.

Class – Players have several classes to choose from. Barbarian, Soldier, Thief, etc. This aspect describes who the character is from a professional point of view. Exactly like classes in D&D and in extension the Conan RPG. Feel free to elaborate on the classes as you see fit. For example a Scholar could be a “Priest of Mitra” or a Barbarian could be a “Savage Warrior of the Frozen North” or a Soldier could be a “Stalwart Gunderman Mercenary.”

Reputation – A brief description of what the character is known for or stands for. While high concept is the way the character thinks of herself, the characters reputation represents what others think of her.


Instead of the regular FAE approaches, Conan uses the standard statistic line from Dungeons and Dragons. Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Wisdom, Intelligence and Charisma. Think of them as equivalents to Strength = Forceful, Dexterity = Quick/Sneaky, Wisdom = Careful, Intelligence = Clever and Charisma = Flashy. Constitution can be a form of Forceful but also works much like the Physique Skill in Fate Core, granting more stress and/or consequence boxes as described on page 118 of the Fate Core book. Wisdom also acts like the Will skill in Fate Core when it comes to Mental Stress boxes.

It is easy to simply transfer a characters Ability Modifier straight to the Approach bonus. For example a Strength stat of 18 in D&D has a bonus of +4 while a Charisma of 8 would be a -1. Those bonuses would carry over directly. If not converting from the Mongoose version of Conan follow the regular rules for Approaches in the Fate Accelerated rule book.

Stress and Consequences

Conan uses the Stress and Consequences found in Fate Core. There are two Tracks, Mental and Physical which can be boosted by the Wisdom (which acts exactly like Will) and Constitution (which acts exactly like Physique) respectively. The addition of the Mental track to the regular FAE system is done to accommodate the horror aspect in Howard’s world and should be used to track the consequences of being exposed to the myriad horrors of the outer dark that are part of the stories in Hyboria.


Players get three Stunts for Conan FAE. Players are encouraged to use the Feats and Class Abilities from the Mongoose Conan RPG as templates for Stunts. Here are a few examples.

Dodge – Receive a +1 to all Defense Actions using the Dexterity Approach.

Two Weapon Fighting – Receive a +2 to any use of the Dexterity Approach in an Attack action while wielding a light weapon in each hand.

Uncanny Dodge – Spend a Fate Point to roll a Defense Action even when the character is unaware of an attack.

Web of Death – When using a Defend Action that is successful, spend a Fate Point to apply the shift difference as an attack immediately against the attacker.


All players start with a refresh of 3. Extra Stunts can be purchased at a cost of one Refresh per stunt, maximum of two.


Great Weapons get a +2 shift for damage but grant the Aspect “Unwieldy”.

Armor gives you a -1 shift for damage. Heavy armor gives a -2 but adds the Aspect “Cumbersome”. A shield gives a +1 to any Defend action.

Akbitanan weapons have Akbitanan as an Aspect to represent their superior make.

That’s it. It’s that simple.