Monday 31 May 2010

Healing Surges : Good or bad?

We recently had a typical D&D session involving a large combat, lots of damage being dished out and several players reaching 0 hit points before receiving Healing Surges and getting up as if nothing had happened. Surges were a new concept introduced in 4th Edition and for some old warhorses like me they just don’t sit right. I discussed this with the EvilGM and here’s the essence of that conversation:

EvilGM: I must admit, healing surges were one of the things I really didn't like when I first saw 4e. Potentially a first level fighter might have 28 hp and 9 healing surges, each restoring 7 hp. That gives (9 x 7) =63 + 28 = 91 hit points for a first level character - preposterous! And the idea that classes other than clerics could be healing characters really rankled. And as for starting each new day at full hit points and healing surges? Ridiculous! But now I'm used to the new rules, I prefer them.

I guess it was a mind set thing that only clerics healed and it took a long while for higher level PC's to regain their HP’s. But did it really add to the game? I remember as DM having to throw in loads of potions of healing and scrolls, or as a player my PC waking up with only half hit points and deciding to camp where we were for another day or two to recuperate. And of course the cleric PC was regarded as a walking first aid box.

BigLee: As a player I like Healing surges (they have saved my bacon many a time) but I still find it hard to reconcile the idea that any character has a self healing capacity. Of course the concept of healing surges is supposed to reflect vigour and determination (shrugging off wounds in the heat of battle) which I can accept… but what about when the battle ends. Surely when adrenalin levels return to normal the true effect of wounds will be felt and the PC would drop to the floor through shock and blood loss. Without this negative, real world effect, Healing Surges become a magical element rather than a physical one. And if they are magical in nature, doesn't that fundamentally change every campaign setting they have ever been used in and undermine the whole purpose of the Cleric in the party?

Evil GM: Hmm, I'm not sure I totally agree with you though. Would the after effects be that debilitating? If the combat was a particularly brutal one leaving the PC's with broken bones and internal bleeding, absolutely! As soon as the adrenalin levels dropped so should our PC's as shock and blood loss kicks in. But remember the PC's are generally the victors, would they be that badly used? As long as the PC isn't dropped I'd have no problem assuming the hit point loss reflects fatigue more than anything else, and after a short break they are fully recovered. Without 'divine magic' to explain the 'miraculous' recovery it does seem somewhat far fetched.On the other hand, what would we prefer? We could easily apply penalties on a PC to reflect his pain and injuries, but its not much fun to play a less effective character.

BigLee: I've no desire to see the rules made more complex but it still doesn't sit right with me that PC’s can take massive wounds, be dragged to the threshold death, recover and then be fighting like nothing is the matter a few seconds later. I know its a fantasy setting but I’ve always thought of Magic as another layer of Physics superimposed over other real world laws - like Gravity and Relativity - even fantasy creatures can be explained as wierd branches of evolution. Given this ‘real’ world framework it seems to be a bit if a cop-out to not have a better explanation of how healing Surges work in a D&D setting.

I can believe in a cleric calling on his god to summon healing power (using the ‘force’ if you like) to cure someone, but the undefined semi-magical healing bonus that is the Healing surge stretched physics (both real and magical) to the limit. In some ways this goes back to my argument last week that 4E isn't D&D any more… how many conventions of the original game can you break before it ceases to be the same game?

EvilGM: To be honest I think it comes down to playability vs realism. The 4e position makes no excuses for realism and goes straight for playability. With 'healing' now more akin to 're-invigorating' you enter each encounter refreshed in terms of hp and start each new day at full strength - even if there is no divine spell caster to 'miracle' you back to full health. But while I think this is reasonable in realism terms if the PC's don't suffer a bit of a bashing, it does stretch the limits of believability that the PC's might have been at deaths door one encounter, then bounce back with no noticeable after effects in the next combat five minutes later.

BigLee: I think many players are not comfortable with healing surges as a concept but were stuck with them if we want to play 4E. So how do we use them more creatively? I originally thought there were too many healing surges, because we have never reached a point where a PC has run out. But maybe they just need to be used more creatively by the GM as non combat penalties for things like poison, fatigue, environmental conditions etc. or even as a reward mechanism under certain circumstances.

The DMG suggests using healing surges as a non combat penalty for failure in some skill challenges. For example moving through the Underdark a failed skill check results in an encounter with noxious gases or a rock slide. Rather than applying hit damage the PC's suffer a healing surge penalty instead. Another suggested use is to represent the progress of a disease or of poison. Some curses and monster powers already exist that effect Healing Surges. Some reduce the HP's regained from healing surges. Others prevent the spending of healing surges or limit the PC's to one surge per encounter.

In almost any any encounter or situation healing surges can be used as a superior penalty to having something deal actual damage. The important point to remember is that this penalty is cumulative and could have a significant effect on any major combat encounter later in the day. The possibilities are quite literally endless, and will undoubtedly add an extra dimension to the game.

Sunday 30 May 2010

Big Picture : Trafalgar

This is a very impressive Trafalgar game, recreating the famous victory by Nelson in 1805. Run by North London Wargames Group it won Best Demonstration Game at Salute 2005.
From The Big Picture

Friday 28 May 2010

The 10 Foot Pole

I remember writing up my first D&D character (a Conan rip-off called Vulcan the Slayer) and kitting him out with all the essential equipment. I looked down the list of items I could buy and scratched my head bemused when I got to "10 Foot Pole"... It isn't even in the 4E equipment list so why was it dropped?

One obvious answer might be that lugging a 10' pole around isn't practical or, for that matter, realistic. It did strike me as somewhat incongruous when I first saw it all those years ago. "For an item with such a limited range of uses it was considered an essential piece of equipment for a long time. Not a lot of people realise this, but it was also an intensely magical item. It had the ability to disappear in combat or when running or when traversing narrow tunnels and only reappeared when you wanted to prod that pile of rags 10 feet away! " [The EvilGM]

The long lost 10’ Pole is not just a piece of equipment, it’s also a metaphor for the changes that D&D has gone through on its journey towards 4th edition. Once upon a time overcoming obstacles was more about description, storytelling and problem solving than dice rolls. In those games a 10' pole could be a useful adventuring tool. But it started to loose its universality as character specialisation introduced rules that defined the differences between the Classes and how they carried out their specific skills. The Rogues Find/Remove Trap skill introduced in 2nd Edition is an early example. By 3rd Edition the Search skill further reduced the need for players to describe the nature of their investigations by reducing it to a proactive (the player proposed it) dice roll. This has been taken even further in 4E because now its an unconscious (the GM suggests it) Passive Perception roll.

I do recall one edition having a ten foot pole that came in 2’ lengths that screwed together - a bit more practical then the original version – but even that seems to have gone by the wayside in current equipment lists. So in an attempt to encourage its reintroduction to the game here are ten suggested uses for a 10ft Pole.

  1. The obvious and classic use for a 10' pole is for springing traps such as floor tiles from a safe distance. Similarly it could be used to push open doors that you suspect of being magically trapped. I recall using a pole to open a door that had an Arcane Mark on it. Needless to say the 10ft pole wasn't 10ft long when I'd finished.
  2. Lash a knife to the end and you have a long spear. a long spear and use it as a pole.
  3. In an emergency, and where wood is scare, its a portable campfire.
  4. Use to 'lock' doors that have lost the original locking bar. Not as strong as the original but it might buy you a few seconds.
  5. Placed upright into the ground it becomes the centerpiece of a gentleman's nightclub (think about it).
  6. A makeshift washing line after falling into the river. It could also be used to hang metal equipment from in camp, rather than leaving it on the ground where the morning due would rust it.
  7. Combined with a suitably large piece of material it can be used as a tent pole to make a Tepee style shelter.
  8. In conjunction with a rock or other fulcrum it can be used as a lever to move heavy objects such a boulders.
  9. Checking the depth of muddy water such as when the PC's are making their way across a swamp. It's time consuming but better than stepping in a 6ft deep puddle.
  10. As a map making aide the Pole becomes a way to accurately measure the size of rooms.

The 10 Foot Pole may seem like a very archaic and impractical piece of equipment but I think it still has a role to play in D&D. My current 4th Edition PC, Uthek, will be shopping for a collapsible version as soon as he's back in a city.

Wednesday 26 May 2010

Wargames Illustrated 272

I received my copy of Wargames Illustrated (issue 272) yesterday and as usual I was not disappointed. This months theme is Napoleonic and focuses on the often complex political landscape and loyalties of that period. Like many gamers I enjoy looking at Napoleonic display games with their brightly coloured ranks of soldiers and regimental colours. This issue is full of full colour pictures to whet your appetite and stimulate the senses.

Whether you play the period or not I defy anyone not to find something of interest in this issue.

  • FIGHTING FOR KING AND COUNTRY - An Introduction to Napoleonic Europe and the thread that runs through the magazine, the career of Wilhelm von Dörnberg.
  • OLD SOLDIERS NEVER DIE - Lübeck 1806 is a scenario fighting one of von Dörnberg’s early battles.
  • CREATING A KINGDOM: WESTPHALIA - The Kingdom of Westphalia was the centrepiece of the Confederation of the Rhine and this article looks at its rise and fall.
  • THE BATTLE OF LEIPZIG - The largest of Napoleon’s battles. An excellent photo-report of a recreation of this battle.
  • GRENADIER A PIED DE LA GARDE IMPERIALE - Napoleon’s elite infantry.
  • PROJECT HOUGOUMONT -Here’s how you can get involved with the project to renovate Hougoumont Chateau.
  • THE DEVELOPMENT OF FOG: RENAISSANCE - Author Richard Bodley Scott walks through the development and game-play of the soon-to-be-released rules.
  • WARGAMING THE ROMAN ARMY - PART 1 - The first of two article looking at the development of the Roman army, from the foundation of Rome to the decline of the Empire.
  • GREAT WARRIORS: BERDAN'S SHARPSHOOTERS - Part of an occasional series.
  • ON PATROL WITH THE DEVIL'S BRIGADE - A Flames of War scenario for WWII Italy.
  • WASHING THE SPEARS WITH THE MATABELE - The military history of a warrior nation.
  • HOW TO BUILD A DUTCH WINDMILL - An excellent building guide.

As an added bonus this months issue comes with this excellent Osprey guide absolutely free. I'm not about to rush out and buy a Napoleonic Army (despite the excellent range of choices in both metal and plastic now available to gamers) but I'm still looking forward to reading this guide.

Monday 24 May 2010

The Evil's of Choice

The following is an extract from a long running email conversation I've been having with the EvilGM about the relative merits of 4E and in particular levels of complexity and choice.

BigLee: I spent a couple of hours looking through Adventurers Vault and the PHB for a magic item that inspired me and all I ended up with was a headache. I know the developers wanted more strategic combinations for players but after a year playing 4E I’m still of the opinion this version is more complicated than 3.5 or earlier. I’m not advocating a return to Basic D&D but I think I spend more time focusing on the multiplicity of rules/powers/conditions/effects than on roleplaying now.

EvilGM: I agree there is quite some complexity - I find myself referring to the PHB to double check exactly how something works at least once between games. Yes, the rules are more complex, that I can't deny, but mainly because they have tried to put everything "on the table" - ie you have keywords, and bonuses and conditions etc, rather than previous editions where everything had to be looked up. One thing I will say in favour of 4e is we rarely refer to the PHB in the course of the game - everything is on the sheet now

BigLee: Yes 4E has more subtlety and sophistication than basic D&D but I sometimes look at my six page character sheet and long for simpler days. It doesn't feel like D&D anymore. I’ll be the first to admit that I suffer from an excess of nostalgia but I bet if you asked our group which version of D&D they preferred; only one of them would say 4E.

EvilGM: Not sure I agree with you that this isn't the same game anymore. For me it generally plays the same, and that’s what counts. Yes, in a many respects it's very different, but for me the biggest difference is choice. In Basic D&D a lot of the rules were pretty clunky having been adapted from a wargame. Sure the game was a lot quicker and simpler, but I honestly think we'd all find it way too restrictive now. [Basic] had very few options and choices

BigLee: I think this is the crux of my problem with 4E… its too complex for simple minded players like me. That’s not to say its more complex than earlier version. I understand that it has simplified and streamlined many of the complexities and inconsistencies form earlier editions. But I remember one of the articles on the WotC site before the release of 4e talking about the design brief for the game. One of the stated objectives was to give players a wide range of options and builds so players could customise their characters and find unique strategies for play. I groaned inwardly because I knew this wasn't a game driven decision, it was part of the Business model. Without the option for complexity and customisation there would be no need for dozens of supplements to keep the publishing machine grinding onwards.

EvilGM: I'd say too much choice is counter productive, as the number of options goes up the differences between them drops, reducing the distinctions between the choices. A big flaw is assuming everyone actually wants lots of options. And the attempt to give a series of 'frameworks' - ie conditions, power keywords, attack types (melee, ranged, close, burst) creates a big learning curve. In theory once you get your head around these concepts it removes the need to constantly refer to the rule books to resolve difficult situations and should remove the rules conflicts that plagued previous editions. But getting your head around it all can be more work than you expect in a game.

BigLee: I think I’ve finally found what I don’t like about 4E… and it’s not the rules. It’s the business model that has turned every edition since AD&D into a horribly over engineered and complex monster. The core concept of 4E is good but from the core rulebooks onwards they have deliberately designed the game to be complex. Don’t get me wrong, I like to customise. I like choice. But there comes a point when too much choice actually has a negative effect.

EvilGM: It's an important point - they are pushing choice so much they forgot about the people who don't want choice. I like options, but give too much choice and the differentiations between the choices disappear to the point where they are negligible - and your 'choice' disappears.

BigLee: Don’t get me wrong I like some choice… I just feel sometimes that there are so many options available, and so many permutations and combinations, that I’ve become ‘snow blind’ to the lot. I might as well pick powers and magic items by closing my eyes and shove a pin in the book as I flick through. A dearth of options is definitely a negative point of 4E (and 3e/3.5) for me… and I’d suggest it’s also a problem for players who like choice and a multiplicity of options, because their fellow players PC’s are always such a disappointment.

As you can see 4E still divides opinion in our group. We won't be breaking out an earlier edition to revert to, but neither will we be rushing to buy the inevitable 4.5 edition!

Sunday 23 May 2010

Big Picture : Tiger Replica

Today's Big Picture was taken at Military Odyssey in 2009. This is a full size replica Tiger I and it had just taken part in a WWII battle re-enactment.
From The Big Picture
I was told it featured in Saving Private Ryan and other films although I can't find anything to corroborate this.

Friday 21 May 2010

By Tank into Normandy

This first hand account of the invasion of German occupied France in 1944 takes the reader from the cricket fields of an English boarding school through D-Day and onwards to the end of the war. Stuart Hills has an easy way with words that carries the reader through the adventure, danger, loss and exhilaration experienced by all that took part in this massive undertaking.

The opening chapters concentrate on Hill's early years, growing up part of an upper middle class colonial family in Hong Kong and later at school back in England. His upbringing seemed to me to be the very antithesis of my firmly working class, family oriented, background. But as his story unfolded I felt myself warming to his character and I appreciated something of the enormous personal journey that he went through as a young officer (hills turned 21 while serving in Belgium).

Start Hills was commissioned in the Sherwood Rangers in 1944 having passed through Sandhurst after joining up in 1942. He was assigned command of a DD (Duplex Drive) Amphibious Sherman but his tank was damaged by artillery fire and sank before it reached the shore. Hills and his crew escaped to a dingy and were rescued by an armed landing craft. The next day (D+1) they took another dingy and managed to row ashore. The Beachmaster watched their arrival and commented dryly, "This is sure to swing the balance in Monty's favour. There will be consternation in Berlin."
Later he was awarded the MC for action at the bitterly defended River Noireau crossing. Hills troop of three Sherman's were instrumental in taking the Berjou Ridge, overlooking the crossing, in the face accurate artillery fire and infantry defenders armed with Spandau's, Mortars and Panzerfaust's. Indeed the threat from this latter weapon seemed to be foremost in many tank commanders minds throughout the campaign to free France and later Belgium. At one point in September, Hill's men were in the main square in Gheel when it was surrounded. His Sherman took a direct hit from a Panzerfaust and he was lucky to escape with just a grazed forehead.

Throughout the book Hill takes time to describe the men and officers he served with. Some of the vignettes he paints are a bit two dimensional and its hard to put faces to the lists of names. However some notable characters do rise to the foreground as significant people in the life and experience of this young officer. These include Keith Douglas, the war poet, who - having served throughout the regiments time in north Africa - was killed on D+3 by mortar fire. Another figure who features prominently in this book is the regimental Chaplain Leslie Skinner. Padre Skinner worked tirelessly tending the spiritual needs of his comrades and personally took charge of recovering and burying those killed.

However it was the story of the loss of his best friend - Denis Elmore - in the latter part of the war, that as a reader helped me connect with him. Elmore and Hills had been friends at Tonbridge School and as young men they had found success playing cricket against their rivals, Clifton Collage, at Lords. Now, a mere three years later, they had become experienced and battle hardened soldiers in the advancing allied armies. Denis Elmore was killed in one of the last engagement's the Sherwood Rangers undertook in the war. Hills described candidly how he found himself grieving heavily for his lost friend and all the life he would miss out on.

The Historian Richard Holmes described this book as "one of the best first hand accounts of the war" and on reflection I have to agree.

Wednesday 19 May 2010

Bunker Bash 2010

I went to Bunker Bash - a Living History event hosted by the Secret Nuclear Bunker - on Sunday. This is the events 5th year but the first time I have visited it and I wasn't disappointed. There was a fine selection of reenactor's present along with an interesting assortment of vehicles from different periods. I particularly enjoyed a display by a group dedicated to showing off the work of the Royal Engineer Bomb Disposal teams. This was something I've not seen before and the talk given to the public was very interesting and entertaining.

As usual all the reenactor's were more than willing to talk to the visiting public and many gladly posed for pictures. I really liked was this character shot I took of one of the German soldiers. I altered the image to try and recreate the slightly grainy, high contrast look of contemporary photographs and I'm pretty happy with the finished study.

As usual I shot loads of pictures, a selection of which can be seen in the slideshow below.

Monday 17 May 2010

Making 15mm Bocage

My Brother-in-law and I are currently building armies to fight a Normandy campaign using the Flames of War rules. One essential ingredient in any such battles is terrain and in particular the Bocage hedgerows which typified the area around the beachheads. I looked briefly at buying some pre made Bocage terrain but quickly dismissed this as an expensive option. Instead I decided to have a go at making my own Bocage, and this is how I did it.

First off I decided the dimensions to aim for. I referred to descriptions given in various first hand accounts of fighting in the Bocage, and some modeling guides from the FoW website. The Bocage typically consisted of an earthen bank topped with stones and rocks with tall hedges and trees along its crest. To recreate this in 15mm scale I decided the earth bank should be about 10mm high coming to 15mm with the stone top. The hedges would rise another 10-15mm on top of that with trees up to another 20mm above that. The overall average height would therefore be between 25-30mm with some tree filled sections rising to 50mm from ground level. Significant obstacles indeed.

For the earth bank I wanted a material that was durable and would form a strong base on which to put everything else. I opted for shaped wooden mouldings which came in 2.4m lengths. I chose two sizes which when glued together would create a wide bank with a central ridge. The topmost part would later have stones glued on and the lower slopes would eventually be covered in static grass.

With both sections firmly glued together I then cut the whole thing into sixteen 15mm sections. The upper ridge of each section was coated in PVA glue and dipped into a tray of gravel to create the rock covered crest for the bank. The whole section was then then spray primed in black and left to dry thoroughly.

The stony crest was then dry brushed in different shades of grey several times to accentuate the rocks. The grass covered earth bank either side of the crest was painted dark green and then covered with static grass. Now all that was needed was the vegetation on the top.

I purchased several types of clumpy 'brush' or hedge which could then be added to the crest of each section. I also found some excellent rubberised horse-hair hedges. These were painted green and covered in green flock. When all this had been glues into position and dried I then touched up the hedge sections with different colour green paint and flock. The purpose of this last stage was to create an uneven and patchwork look to these ancient hedgerows.

I'm quite happy with the finished pieces especially considering how quick and easy they were to build. However I will have to make more - corners and T sections for instance - and have several ideas for improvements on the next batch.

The cost of materials was relatively low. The wood cost about £7.50; Static Grass and Gravel I already had in stock but replacement material cost me £5.00; vegetation/hedge material came to a little under £10 and I still have plenty left for other projects. In total I spent about £22 to make 2.4 meters (94 inches) of bocage. I looked at various pre-made options for sale and the equivalent length would have cost between £70-100 depending on where I bought them.

Sunday 16 May 2010

Big Picture : Alpine Reenactors

Today's Big Picture was taken just a couple of weeks ago at The Royal Gunpowder Mills in Waltham Abbey. The VE day festivities take place every year and I have been several times. Unfortunately the weather this year was pretty awful and both the Hurricane and Spitfire flyovers had to be cancelled. The only people who looked like they were warm enough were these German Alpine Troops.
From The Big Picture
Unfortunately I didn't get the name of their group and can't find anything on the Gunpowder Mills website. However the guys pictured here were friendly and talked at great length about the equipment on display.

Friday 14 May 2010

Storage Space

Space is at a premium in my house. With two kids and a lifetimes worth of stuff accumulated its getting hard to find room for new purchases. My wife is very understanding but even I have to concede that I'm taking over the house and need to reorganise.

I currently have two large (50ltr) lidded boxes that contain terrain and other bulky items. One holds 28mm scenery for roleplaying games while the other is now dedicated to my growing collection of 15mm terrain. Because of their size these are stored in my bedroom on top of my wardrobe. I also have four Games Workshop storage cases holding a growing selection of models for roleplaying.

In addition to these cases I have an aluminium model case that I bought for my Flames of War miniatures. It comfortably holds all of these and there is plenty of room for new models (especially at the speed I paint). Then there are several boxes of magazines and hundreds of books. Most of this is in the Living room - on, around, and under my computer desk. It's not exactly tidy but it is all in once place...sort of.

I'd love to have my own game room but until I chuck my kids out I guess I'll have to wait. In the meantime I decided to have a good sort out. A few month ago I got rid of a load of gaming books, supplements and magazines. My mate put these on EBay for me and most of it seems to have sold quite well. I have also reorganised where I store stuff, clearing some space in my bedroom cupboard for boxes. Its still not ideal but at least its out of sight and isn't cluttering up the family room.

Another longer term option is outside storage. I have a brick built shed in the garden but the roof collapsed a few years ago and I keep putting off rebuilding it. If I can make my shed weather proof again then many of our storage problems would be solved. A few large plastic boxes, suitable sealed could be used to store all manner of items outside the house. So, instead of painting this weekend, I'll be dodging rain showers to remove whats left of the old shed roof and clearing the inside of rubbish. I'd rather be painting, but I have to think of this a long term strategy to get a dedicated gaming area inside the house.

Wednesday 12 May 2010

Panzer Division: The Mailed Fist

I've just finished this book that I picked up from a military book stall some time ago. Its an old edition and maybe lacks some of the nuance that is expected in more recent works. However it was written within a reasonable period ofter the war and in some ways that gives the text a freshness that can be lost in often sterile modern history books.

If you want an overview of WWII from the armoured perspective you could do worse than this book. It sweeps through the broad concepts and events of the war in a clear and concise way and refrains from drawing conclusions on the historical facts. This lack of bias makes this a good place to start your research. It also makes for a remarkable detached and objective assessment of the success or otherwise of Nazi Germany's infamous Panzer Divisions.

I found it fast paced and easy to read yet detailed enough that I learned several new things from this book. The illustrations and pictures in the book work well to complement the narrative although some of the photographs are of poor quality. Unlike other books I have read this volume avoids long lists of statistics and instead tries to present a general summary of facts and events that gives a clear feeling for the situation on the ground.

Published by Ballantine in 1973 there are still copies in circulation. At the time of writing this I have found several copies available on eBay and with other military history booksellers. I picked up my copy from Lanchester Books (at Military Odyssey) for a pound and consider that very good value for money indeed.

Kenneth Macksey (1923-2005) was a well respected military author and drew heavily on his experience as a Tanker in WWII. He served under Percy Hobart who devised specialised armoured vehicles - known as Hobart's Funnies - for participation in the invasion of Normandy. Macksey won the Military Cross for his actions in Normandy before being injured. He finished the war with the rank of Major. He later went on to write several biographies of key figures in the development of Armoured tactics including Guderian, Rommel and Kesselring.

Title: Panzer Division (Paperback)
Author: Kenneth Macksey
Paperback: 160 pages
Publisher: Ballantine Books(Nov 1976)
Language: English

Tuesday 11 May 2010

RIP Frank Frazetta

The Los Angeles Times announced today that Frank Frazetta has died at the age of 82. Frazetta was a prolific artist who started out working on comics like The Shining Knight and Ghost Rider. However it is his later work on the Conan paperbacks of the 60's that made him famous amongst fans of the fantasy genre and later still amongst players of games like D&D.

Frazetta once claimed that he never read any of the Conan stories, yet somehow he perfectly captured the essence of the rugged barbarian from the north. His covers have become synonymous with Robert Howard's greatest character and the two will forever be inextricably linked in the minds of many readers.

Monday 10 May 2010

Dice on Fire!

Don't panic, I'm not dishing out Corporal Punishment to my dice today. After a very bad session a few weeks ago I vented my anger on my d20 and destroyed it. I bought myself a new set of dice and over the last few weeks they have performed admirably well. On Friday however they entered a league of their own. My new D20 is fast becoming a legend.

I rolled four natural 20's in one evening three of those being combat critical hits. I've not been keeping detailed records and conducting statistical analysis, but this d20 definitely seems to be rolling high compared to its predecessor. There are two explanations. First, my intimidation tactics worked, or second, the dice isn't as balanced as it should be.

I read somewhere that gaming dice are not made to the same high specification as Gambling dice and that small imperfections such as air bubbles or irregular edges could 'unbalance' the dice. Another possibly more plausible explanation is that my dice have swirls of colour within them. Two or more coloured plastics have been blended to create this effect and of course the density of each component may be different. The variation in balance for such dice is likely to be tiny (less than 1%) but could statistically bias towards a particular number and would not necessarily be positive.

My new d20 clearly seems to be balanced towards better rolls, but is it cheating? Well if I'd gone out and bought loaded dice then yes it would be cheating. But this was just the luck of the roll (no pun intended) when I bought this set of dice and not the set next to them on the shelf. Most regular gaming dice are probably unbalanced but not to statistically significant levels. So every gamer has an equally random chance of buying a slightly unbalanced die that rolls high. The trick is identifying the bad dice and eliminating them from the gene pool so that you will be left with the high performers.

The moral of this story is that it doesn't matter how much you paid for your dice. In the end it all comes down to luck.

Sunday 9 May 2010

Big Picture : Messerschmitt BF 109

Following on from last weeks Big Picture here is another photo from the Gathering of Warbirds and Veterans event. There are only two flight worthy Messerschmitt bf 109's and this one flew in specially for this air show.
From The Big Picture

Friday 7 May 2010

Walk the Battlefield

A Couple of weeks ago I got another opportunity to visit one of my favorite English Heritage sites, Battle Abbey in Sussex. This was the site of the Battle of Hastings on 14th October 1066 in which the Saxon King, Harold II, was defeated and killed by the Norman Duke William II.

Back in October last year I wrote about a previous visit to the battlefield and how important I felt it was to see the landscape first hand. I still hold with this view even though the landscape has been significantly altered in the intervening 944 years. For a start the crest of Senlac Hill - where most of the hard fighting took place and where Harold met his end - was leveled off by the Normans to build the Abbey. The surrounding lands have also been drained and farmed in a way that obscures the natural obstacles Williams army faced. In particular the coastline was radically different and the whole area was in fact a peninsular surrounded by water and marshland.
For me this puts a whole new perspective on the hurried action of Harold when he learned of Williams invasion. Many books I have read describe Harold's decision to force march his troops south and engage with the invaders to be reckless. Plenty of armchair generals have said he should have waited for fresh reinforcements before attacking or should have fallen back on London to buy more time for defense. But I suspect Harold saw an opportunity to contain the Normans and dictate the conditions of battle. I think he made the best decision he could given the conditions and was just unlucky with his dice rolls.Standing at the bottom of Senlac Hill looking up towards the Saxon position its clear what an excellent defensive location they held against the invader. The battlefield tour takes you around the perimeter of the site, then up the long slope to the abbey itself. Walking up this slope is an effort, even when not loaded down with armour and weapons. No amount of maps, books and TV documentaries can illustrate the geography like being there for yourself.

If you get a chance to visit a battlefield I strongly recommend it. It may change your perspective of events and challenge some of the conclusions in your history books.

Wednesday 5 May 2010

Minions in 4E

Today I have a Guest Post by The Evil GM on a subject close to his heart.

D&D 4th Edition introduced a new class of monsters, minions, creatures with only a single hit point designed to be slaughtered in droves by the heroes. Now my first impression when I heard about these was “Not in my game!” Foes with one hit point, killed by even the meanest attack seemed utterly pointless to me. My players will confirm I prefer to pitch them into tough battles that force them to think and work as a team, so pitting them against foes designed to have a glass chin just seemed wrong. OK, they are slightly tougher than the one hp would suggest – a missed attack never kills a minion, so if they are in the blast of a fireball they don’t take half damage if it misses them, but still their low AC and defences mean most in a blast will be killed.

However the more I read and thought about them the more interested I became. While of limited use in many situations, they are perfect for those scenes when the PC’s have to cut their way through large numbers of foes to reach their goal – the enemy wizard, the coven opening a portal to hell, the grand vizier etc. ‘Normal’ 4e monsters of an appropriate level would be too powerful in large numbers, and while it is theoretically possible to simply use lots of lower level foes, in practise this doesn’t work so well. Their ‘to hit’ bonuses are so low that they rarely threaten the PC’s, while their AC and defences are poor enough that they get hit almost every round, so it just becomes a boring exercise of hacking away hit points with no real danger. Minions by contrast are designed to actually threaten the PC’s in combat and have the potential to damage them (not much, admittedly, but the cumulative effects add up) and generally have sufficient armour that, while still relatively easy to take down, they will survive poor dice rolling. And of course if they can outflank the party and get to the ‘squishes’ at the back they become a real threat, preventing the wizard from casting, tying the archer down in melee, and even a minion can coup de grace a fallen hero. The clincher for me is that they are so ‘cheap’ - as a rule of thumb between four to six minions replace a ‘normal’ foe, so by replacing a two or three normal ‘grunts’ you can have around ten to twelve more monsters on the battle map – worth it if only for the panic in the players eyes before they drop the first one or two to confirm they are minions!

In practise I’ve had mixed results with minions, initially employing them in a nice tight group thinking there was safety in numbers – until a single area effect spell decimated them all... But over time I’ve begun to use them better, spread out and attacking from two or more different directions, trying to hit softer targets and leaving the parties melee champions to the enemy Brutes and Soldiers, going after non-combatants etc. A different mind-set is also important - at first I’d think they were a waste of time when they dropped like flies, being wiped out in the first couple of rounds, but then in discussion with the players I realised they were taking up the attention of key party members and forcing them to utilise valuable resources to counter them. Now when they get wiped out en mass I’m perfectly happy as that’s exactly what they are supposed to do.

But all of this is irrelevant when compared to the key measure – do they make combat more fun? In my view definitely, fun for me in being able to stage a larger scale battle and fun for the players as their PC’s carve a bloody swathe across the battlefield. Of course the real fun will come when one PC suffers the indignity of being ‘dropped’ by a minion! The ribbing will be brutal...

Monday 3 May 2010

Lashendene Air Warfare Museum

While I was on holiday I had a chance to visit the Lashendean Air Warfare Museum near Ashford in Kent. This museum is on the site of a wartime airfield that still operates today. Indeed the day I went there were several plane loads of skydivers getting ready to jump out of perfectly good aircraft... for fun!

Photography is by prior permission so I emailed a few days in advance and was duly told I could take pictures.

This was a very interesting museum with everything laid out in an organised and informative way. All the artifacts were carefully displayed and the individual stories associated with them presented in an interesting way. Some museums bombard you with loads of reading and frankly can be a little boring. Lashendean however presented enough information to make the 'story' easy to read.

I also thought there was an interesting selection of artifacts on display, from parts of recovered aircraft to models and personal memorabilia.

Sunday 2 May 2010

Big Picture : Gathering of Warbirds

This picture was taken just a week ago at a special airshow at North Weald Aerodrome. The Gathering of Warbirds and Veterans event brought together over 20 vets from the Battle of Britain (from both sides) and some of the aircraft they flew.
From The Big Picture
The weather was a bit grim, with drizzly rain off and on all morning. But despite the weather aircraft were arriving all day, including these four Spitfires.