Monday, April 29, 2013

HelgaCon VI - Adam's Games

At HelgaCon a few weeks back, I was running AD&D module D1 Descent Into the Depths of the Earth, in the same Saturday afternoon slot that our friend Adam was set to run a big Paranoia game. Thus, I didn't get to play in that, but Adam honored me with the professional courtesy to check out what he was setting up in advance, and wow was it impressive! (I've run a prop-heavy Paranoia game in the distant past, but this one utterly put me to shame.) All I can say about the gameplay is that around the time my players were tiptoeing around a hungry purple worm, one of Adam's players ran through our area to the kitchen, wearing red oven mitts and a red hat, to retrieve a can of Coke in obvious haste. Other than that all I can give you is a short gallery view of the table setup:

(Okay, one hint: Don't take any Skittles that aren't colored-coded to your proper security clearance, eh?)

Saturday, April 27, 2013

SciFi Saturday – Rules and Conversions Booklet

The Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks boxed miniatures each come with an 8-page "Rules and Conversions" booklet. For a long time, it's piqued my curiosity, because to my knowledge no one's ever scanned or presented this document online. Why would miniature conversion rules be needed when the original Tactical Book already included (brief) ones on the inside back cover? So this was an additional reason to finally break open those shrink-wrapped boxes I'd kept for a decade, and finally assess and publicize the contents.

The "Rules and Conversions" booklet is identical in both boxes. Page 2 presents assembly diagrams for all 12 spaceship miniatures in the original series. One flaw: the UPF Battleship is shown being assembled in two halves, split laterally down the hull; when in actuality it comes in front-and-back sections (the Sathar Heavy Cruiser, however, is shown correctly).

The first section presents a "Simple Rules" set (p. 4-6), which could be used by people who didn't have any access to the original boxed-set game. In summary, this eliminates: planets, stations, carriers, fighters, landing, orbiting, and any ships not included in the boxed miniatures. There are no defenses (like masking screens), no range diffusion (i.e., the -5% per hex penalty for lasers), and no acceleration or deceleration. On this latter point, every ship simply has a fixed speed that it must travel every turn, based on its ADF rating from the normal game. Kind of an interesting abstraction.

The second section is the "Conversion Rules" (p. 6-7). As it turns out, these are really the same as those found in the Ares #17 article, "Fire at Will!" by Carl Smith, which I find to be basically underwhelming. What it shares with the Tactical Book rules is reasonable: play on a table or floor with no hex map, and use a protractor for turning (1 hex-face = 60 degrees). So is the detail for forward-firing weapons: fire in arc 30 degrees left or right, with the +10% head-on bonus if the target is within 5 degrees of the bow. But it also changes the scale to 1" = 5,000 km (from 1 inch = 1 hex = 10K km in the original book), requiring a very clunky multiplication of all the acceleration/deceleration factors used during gameplay (and also a seemingly enormous space to recreate action on the original boardgame map; like about 9 feet long by my calculation).

Also, it introduces a new rule for "Area (Zone of Control)", saying that ships "screen" one another and block shots against anything behind them; which is both an enormous strategic alteration to the game, and also really hard to swallow from a simulation perspective; there being a lot of room in 3D outer space. (Additionally, the suggested use of smaller ships to screen larger ships is exactly the opposite of my strategy recommendations for the game.) So I don't actually recommend that anyone use these Conversion Rules; sticking with the original Tactical Book looks more elegant to my eye (but maybe someday we'll try to test out these alterations to confirm how they run). Finally, the back cover has a printed protractor, but obviously this would be quite difficult to use in practice.

In the spirit of scholarly review and criticism, I present the Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks Miniatures Rules and Conversions booklet below, for what I think is the first time online. (Click the image to download a PDF):

Thursday, April 25, 2013

More on Gygax's Drow

Following up on the topic this week of Gygax's dark elves as they were introduced in the AD&D GDQ modules -- as I prepped & ran the D1 adventure the other week, I got a chance to recollect and reflect on a few weird or surprising things with the Drow there, which I wanted to document here. Before anything else, there is the issue of little or no guidance as to how Drow initially confront or react to surface adventurers in the underworld (attack? challenge? ignore? ask for documents?) -- see the last post and comments at the end. But beyond that:
  1. Gygax went super-long with the monster description (obviously lots of loving care for it; at 1½ pages it was surely the longest monster writeup up to that point), and the details are arguably too fiddly; lots of +1 or +2% bonuses here and there.
  2. Likewise, you're in the territory where Gygax can be criticized as making overly long spell-like ability lists that are hard to remember, use, and don't have much theme for the DM. Between the base abilities, high-level abilities, and powerful female abilities, there's 9 different possible effects to track. It's pretty easy for me to then forget about the actual wizard/cleric spell lists and major magic items when I'm trying to juggle all the little-to-big special abilities every drow has. And if drow hate light and have exceptional infravision, then why give them both dancing lights and faerie fire? That's hard to make sense of.
  3. That said, for the record-setting length and density of the encounter writeups (different levels, abilities, lists of magic and exceptional items, spells, etc.) the drow are indeed "weak fighters but strong magic-users". The majority are, after all, just 2nd level fighters with reduced hit points, and I'm always surprised when they start falling to the 9th-level adventurers with one or two hits. (I shouldn't be, but for some reason based on detail and page-length, I still am.) The various and sundry +1 arms/armor/dexterity bonuses really don't make much difference against PCs of that level; the drow footsoldiers go down real fast, regardless of the TLC taken on their lovingly detailed descriptions.
  4. My mental image going in is that encounters will start with the drow using their darkness abilities and then the rest of the fight will be in the gloom. (Note: In my game darkness just extinguishes light sources and spells in the area, doesn't create persistent globes of anti-light, and thus doesn't inhibit drow or others' infravision; this is generally complimented by my players.) But the thing I failed to take into account was the fairly deep resources of a high-level party; usually there's a wizard who can counter-cast a new light spell or someone lighting a new torch every round. So over a half-dozen round melee, we were mostly just flipping the light switch on-and-off every round from PCs to NPCs.
  5. The other thing I didn't quite consider is the high likelihood that, at this level, both parties will have effectively invisible or somehow undetectable scouting leads on each side. What happens when scouts from both sides actually pass each other by, and the two parties are effectively intermixed when combat begins? Did you properly account for all the interactions of sight, light visibility (both within and without), infravision, and range of missile and spell attacks as you set up your deadly ambush? That can get really complicated and convoluted really fast.
So what's your opinion on that (esp., if you've run the classic D1-3 series)? Is the rather sizable amount of detail in the writeup and encounters too complicated or fiddly for the amount of impact the (effectively) Ftr2 drow mooks are making? Did you ever get surprised by how fast the dark elf warriors went down, granted how much buildup there was for them?

Monday, April 22, 2013

HelgaCon VI – Descent Into the Depths

Preparations and Commencement of the Journey; Violence of the Initial Encounter Area; How the Subsequent Passages were Navigated; Entry into the Great Cavern; On the Dilemma of Drow Reactions

Continuing my multi-year program of running one of the classic AD&D GDQ modules at sequential HelgaCon gatherings, this year I was pleased to roll out module D1: Descent Into the Depths of the Earth, which has all kinds of great flavor and atmosphere. Recall that this series is really the "killer app" for D&D: it was the first official series of modules ever published, it's surely the most-played and well-regarded set of modules, it's Gygax at his most creative, and this particular series is what hooked a generation on Drow Elves and the Underdark (although they certainly got overexposed in later years).

For my HelgaCon session I had a full 8 players at the table, ranging from nearly brand-new to very experienced indeed (including my fellow HelgaCon bloggers Paul and BJ). Last year we were low on players, which probably contributed to the TPK pasting they took in the Hall of the Fire Giant King. I started by passing around the same premade OED characters we've been using in prior years, and explained that they'd been resurrected through miraculous means, spending the prior year hunting for a secret entrance beneath the Hall which connected to a series of deeper tunnels.

Having selected their individual characters, I read a modified version of the module's introductory text ("Knowing that the giants seemed to be guided by some unearthly intelligence, you reason that perhaps you can cut this line of support and direction at the source, without confronting Snurre and his titans directly again..."), handed them the fortuitously-discovered Player's Map from the module, and explained the victory conditions for the session.This would be a simplified grading system from prior years, assessing 4 goals: (1) securing passage beyond the first major area shown on the map, (2) discovering some means to allow infiltration into later areas, (3) collecting at least 30,000 silver value, and (4) having all characters survive to the end.

Given this, they picked a party leader/caller (thankfully without prompting on my part), and took some time planning on supplies and equipment. As expected in the module, they did opt to buy a pair of donkeys and load them up with about two month's supply of food and water. I was highly entertained when my friend Paul guessed, "We'll do this to be safe, but surely this adventure can't take more than a single day," when it does in fact extend to a multi-day wilderness-style exploration of miles and miles of tunnels in the Underdark (as we now call it). Having settled on supplies and a tactical marching order for the yawning 30' wide tunnels -- including several continual light items, and an invisible dwarven thief about 100' in front of the party -- they departed into the ever-descending northwest passage. (Regarding the provisioning stage, I must again recommend my simplified stone encumbrance system, which makes calculations for that kind of stuff trivially doable in one's head.)

One thing I did was to make a short custom table to communicate environmental flavor in little bits at a time. I was rolling on this once per mile in the main thoroughfare until the basic table was exhausted. (There's at least one Dragon article by Vic Broquard that has more sophisticated tables for this purpose; as written they're overwhelmingly complicated, but you might cut down parts of them for this purpose; see Dragon #131, p. 22):
  1. Spur (short side cave)
  2. Small stream or pool, drinkable.
  3. Carved side chamber (door 50%).
  4. Cave bats (huge, ugly) fly overhead.
  5. Gust of dank, musty air blows downward.
  6. Stone bridge over crevasse.
The first main encounter area with the Drow checkpoint (hex D3) really hammered the players hard. The dark elves surprised the party with their nigh-undetectability (as might be expected), and as the scout Bellinus Blueye ran into them organizing and tried to return to tell the party, the elves used their magic to extinguish the party lights and simultaneously launch a barrage of poisoned crossbow bolts. This immediately took down the dwarf scout and the party's most experienced wizard (and player). Party response was a bit slow, as they tried to use a healing potion on the poisoned PCs (no effect), cast a light spell (to be extinguished next round by the drow), and having the elven thief/wizard fire a longbow into the darkness ahead (instead of using any magic). On Round 2, the dark elves reloaded and used their darkness magic again; the party responded likewise. On Round 3, the enemy fired another crossbow barrage, taking out the other primary wizard. At this point I was thinking, "Holy crap -- this module claims that it's easier than G3, but by god we're going to have another TPK in the very first encounter!". Well, might as well finish it off and start some other game if that must be the case...

But this was the point where the party managed to start fighting back quite heroically. Someone thought to finally try the precious jug of mithridate (neutralize poison) they'd been given, which did serve to resuscitate the first wizard (and then wisely cast protection from missiles as he got up). The lordly lead fighters charged into the weakly lichen-illuminated tunnel and started hacking down several of the front row of Drow warriors. This then triggered an escalating response from the Drow; the noble magic-user, hanging back in the rear, cast an ice storm spell down on the party; this did 24 points of damage before a save, killing the dwarf scout and one of the donkeys. The party then replied with more concentrated melee, as well as blasts from a fireball wand (at the rear area), a lightning bolt spell, as well as conjuring a 16-HD earth elemental to start pounding Drow and a phantasmal-force duplicate of the same to add to the terror. (Drow special saves versus these effects went in the party's favor, fortunately for them.)

So the players did in fact manage to rally and kill most of the dark elves at the checkpoint, driving off the rest off them. The commanding EHP fled the area with just 5 hp left, having never actually faced the PC's. The party thereafter regrouped, healed whom they could, and successfully used their one reincarnation scroll on their fallen member, bringing the group back to full strength. One of the party fighters, Boris of Briansk had unfortunately shattered his intelligent magic sword in the combat, destroying it (sadly his player Mike inevitably has the worst luck with my critical fumble tables), so he picked up one the fine Drow short swords to use as a replacement. The group cursorily scanned the encampment caves to the side of the tunnel, but didn't want to waste much time investigating them in detail. Several took black cloaks from the fallen dark elves and opted to wear them. (One oversight on my part: If I'd adjudicated crossbow-fire against the donkeys, then both would surely have been killed, and the party would have had to face a significant disruption in their supply plans at this point -- as it was, the one donkey with 2 hp left could carry most of their gear uninterrupted.)

Following this, the group showed much greater proficiency dealing with the underworld environment. Correctly reading their partial map, they chose to take the circuit of side-tunnels and wisely avoid the, shall-we-say, "mind-blowing" second encounter point (in hex M12). Although these side tunnels become more rougher and more rugged, claustrophobically narrowing in on the travelers, they avoided the occasional bottomless crevasses and major wandering monsters. At one point, a group of pulsing, glowing fire beetles were allowed to rush by without incident. The group successfully figured out that camping in a side-spur would be safer than flopping down in the middle of a tunnel (I had the party leader roll the overnight encounter check). Shortly after re-connecting with the main tunnel, the advance scout managed to sneak up on a huge purple worm coiled in the center of the passage, and tiptoed back to the party to hold a whispered (in real life at the table) conversation on what to do -- they wisely retreated down the passage for an hour to let it pass, after which they found a new and smaller tunnel chewed laterally across the main thoroughfare. (This brought up some interesting conversation about Lovecraftian influences, and the possibility of following purple-worm tunnels into new areas or possibly back to the surface.)

After about 3 days of travel in the underearth, the party reached the area of the enormous mega-cavern (hex Q18/19). Time in the session was drawing short, and they made some excellent choices about scouting their way ahead: a combination of infravision and wizard eye spells from two wizards allowed them to scout out much of the main cavern ahead, avoid the mazy side-tunnels, and note what seemed to be the main path of travel back out the northern side. Then they had the insight to thickly wrap their refreshed continual light items in red cloth (courtesy the pregenerated "Jurdan the Red Wizard") so as to mimic fire-beetle light. Thus they advanced stealthily through the stalagmites of the main cavern, and got within striking distance of the Drow watchers before they knew that the party were enemies.

At this point, the final major fight broke out. As usual, the dark elves extinguished the party's bright lights and tried to light them in turn with dim, signalling faerie fire. This time, the party took an aggressive posture, immediately unleashing fireballs (burning up the advance elven watchers) and similar magic. While the drow reinforcements tried to arrive, the party first sealed them in their cave with an illusory wall of fire (which was dispelled), then a real one, followed by more fireballs, and a mighty air elemental summoned from the upper regions of the grand cavern; meanwhile fighters cleaved and thieves backstabbed any of the few fighters who managed to emerge. With time running out, the party leader, Hedron the Valorous Amazing (as I currently read the PC sheet), chose to sprint away from the party northwards, diving across the goal line to earn the "secure passage out of the cavern" victory point literally at the last minute (a bit of a judgement call, but how could you deny that?). As this occurred, the drow commander and her nightmarish steed were ejected from their cave, forcibly by the party's air elemental, burnt by the wall of fire, in a screeching meteor off into the depths of the underworld.

So, an excellent adventure! The party successfully battled back from what looked like a sure TPK on Round 3 of the first encounter (ouch!). I gave them an overall "C" grade, having met half of their victory goals (passage beyond the huge cavern, and still having all the PCs alive, post-reincarnation), but not the other half (no treasure to speak of, and no method of infiltrating later areas). Yes, I grade pretty hard, but nonetheless I was very impressed by the level of play. Congratulations to my players, and enormous thanks for letting me run them through this.

Now, let me make a few comments about Drow responses in this module, which I think stand out as a real dilemma for the DM running this module, as I now see it. On the one hand, the tournament-style checkpoints are clearly set up as combat encounters. But on the other hand, the module does include the possibility of certain passes which the party might use to "enable them to go through Drow areas without undue questioning or molestation!" (p. 3). But my problem with this is, for that to be the case, then how do Drow initially interact with any explorers? Do they all go dwarf-tax-collector by default, stand and deliver themselves to any humans in the underworld, and ask, "Pardon me sir, can we check your papers please?". Because frankly that's definitely not the impression I want to give to my new players on their first interaction with the Drow -- I want them to be mysterious, shadowy, powerful, alien menaces (not department store rent-a-cops). And let's say the party meets one of the possible Drow merchant trains wending their way through tunnel -- how will these figures react: attack, parley, demand passage, or make a pitch for trade? The module gives absolutely no guidance whatsoever, which you might consider a nice opening for DM creativity, but I think is a great oversight. I suppose you could just go pure random reaction rolls, but that seems unsatisfying, especially for the earliest encounters (i.e., first impressions). Especially with justifying how the possible passes could be checked, it seems like a real problem. I made some notes on how how I'd handle it for this session, but I'll keep them to myself for the time being. For those experienced DMs in this regard, how would you deal with this aspect?

Saturday, April 20, 2013

SciFi Saturday – Minelayer Map

In the Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks tactical rules, the Advanced Game section adds the Minelayer to the list of military vessels. The minelayer can drop mines and seeker missiles in any hex that it passes through, which is documented secretly by the controlling player. Furthermore, any scenarios in which the minelayer appears assert that the mines can be similarly placed in advance of the play session (see boardgame rules p. 16, and campaign rules p. 59).

The thing is, the record of where mines are placed is done secretly by the controlling player, and only become known to the enemy when a ship passes through a mined hex. I'm pretty sure this is uniquely the only hidden-information rule in all of the SFKH boardgame text: "The player controlling the minelayer writes down the hex number on a sheet of paper" (boardgame rules, p. 14); "The locations of mines and seekers must be recorded on paper, to be revealed to the attacker when a ship enters one of those hexes" (campaign rules, p. 59). 

In practice, I found that a list of written hex-identifiers (2316, 2225, 2926, etc.) made it rather difficult to determine exactly which mined hexes an enemy ship had passed through in order to explode upon them; you have to search and cross-index the identifiers for all the hexes a ship passed through, versus all the mined hexes in the list, and actually do this simultaneously for all the ships being moved in a turn. That's really quite a computational feat (like O(n^3)). What would really make a lot more sense is to keep a secret visual map of what hexes were mined, which would make it much easier to compare path-of-movement to what regions had been mined.

So I present the below; if a minelayer is in use by one side, I recommend that you print out one of these Minelayer Maps and use that to document where mines have been placed (probably by writing "M" for mines and "S" for seeker missiles in pencil, obviously). Using this one-page map does effectively limit mines to the central area of the boardgame map, but in practice that's the only place I'd ever use them, anyway. Hex identifiers match those on the SFKH map, and the dot in hex 2720 marks the exact center-point of the map (the place where I always set up a planet or other key feature). See the image below, or click here for a PDF.

Side note: Did you know? The U.S. only ever constructed a single dedicated minelayer ship, which was designated CM-5/MM-5, the USS Terror.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

HelgaCon VI – BJ's Games

After Friday night, all of my action in our mini-con this year was ping-ponging between running my own games and playing in one of my game friend BJ's games. I've got to say that BJ makes some of the best, most inventive “high-concept” adventure designs that I've seen, and I'm kind of jealous of him for that.

Here was his Saturday morning game – “Adventure of the Star Condor”. What he did here is glue together at least 3 different game systems for a sprawling, multi-level-of-detail action in a space opera sandbox-type game – along with lots and lots of custom inventions in game rules, goals, maps, props, art, and miniatures. Representing the top level galaxy-exploration situation he was using the map and backstory from the old Parker Brothers “Shadowlord” game (which we hauled out and played two summers ago). When we would encounter enemy spaceships, he would use the system from “Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks” (partly because I've been blogging about it weekly this year) – with custom ship designs, miniatures, and even a jumbo geomorphic hex map with planets, moons, asteroids, etc. For boarding actions and face-to-face combat, we'd use a quasi-D&D/Labyrinth Lord system, with about a dozen possible encounter locations per ship. There were also separate planet-side landing encounters as we searched for particular artifacts of ultimate power. 

One thing he did is to take the dramatic and imaginative character illustration cards from “Shadowlord” and stat every one of them out in D&D/LL type terms, on a large PC card that the illustration would lock into. Each of the players took control of 3 separate characters, and we had 3 spaceships just to start with (main vessel and two escorts), tracking crew, fuel, food, gold, repair facilities, etc. on each. We were given about 20 each representing a squad of crew, repair robots, battle droids, or human space marines. Every player had some personal clue or mission-quest handout (which we shared and debated priorities at the start), and then every space on the map seemed to have some custom clue, quest, map handout, and artifact. (All of the handouts were even laminated.)

BJ said that this game was inspired by my classic D&D sandbox from last “Outdoor Spoliation”, which is high praise indeed. My feeling from last year was that I was basically just running the OD&D Vol-3 wilderness game rules out of the box as closely as I could manage. BJ's game was on a whole different level, to say the least. If you own a boardgame company and could convince BJ to do game and art design for you, then you'd be lucky as hell to make that happen. 

One thing I need to take from the “Condor” game is that BJ did a great job of making some really imaginative, fairly simple, really heavyweight-punching artifact quest in pretty much every space of the map. First we went after a computer module that could raise the dead (in case we had casualties later); this involved a space battle and boarding action with 3 huge enemy pirate vessels, a planet landing with a poisonous atmosphere, and search of an ancient ruin. At this point we had “Dominion Over All Life and Death”, which we felt was a pretty good start to Day 1. After repairing and resupplying, we went after the Infinite Spectrum Cannon, an add-on to a spaceship which could automatically destroy any target with one hit. Once we picked that up, we went after a module which could control time and space (i.e., grant wishes); initial investigation brought us to an entirely metal-covered planet with pirates in control. We dialed the Infinite Spectrum Cannon down to “1” and disintegrated just a single continent to show them we meant business, at which point they proved to be quite amenable. Then we blew up a moon for target practice. Then we got the wish module. With time running out, what should we wish for? “We wish for something bigger to blow up!”, we all cried. At which point the flagship of the race of galaxy-spanning evil Shadowlords appeared before us, we pressed the button, and blew it to kingdom come. Now that's a sandbox RPG for you!

In addition to that, BJ's annual “Thousand Year Sandglass” game (a more literally sandy, Arabian-themed D&D adventure milieu) found myself & Paul elbow-to-elbow for the fifth year in a row, playing the somewhat squabbling roguish warriors [TODO: level name], Hakim and Jiri Jarib (with almost identical stats). Here we were exploring with our half-dozen fellow adventurers a series of caves in an exotic jungle bluff. Generally BJ's games find us wandering around confusedly for about the first half of a session, in this case mostly running from several giants, each with a single huge gem for an eye (fierce encounters with giant lizards, white apes, and crystal statues failed to bring us any significant treasure). But there usually is some compelling fantasy “hook” which we can figure out if we're lucky, and our fellow player Kevin came through by deducing that the chips around a certain mirror-idol were keyed the giants' gemstone-eyes, and would allow us to see what they saw via the surface of the magic mirror. Thus, we could scout their locations and set up ambushes to eliminate them and take their hoards of gold (for example, we hit two giants gambling with dice with an illusion of a loaded dice roll, prompting a fistfight, at the end of which one was unconscious and the other down by half – easy picking when our warriors ran in). We also found a series of maidens entrapped in similar gemstones, and by sacrificing the eye-gems in a magic pool, we could free them and escape from the realm.

That's some damn good convention adventuring, thanks BJ!

Monday, April 15, 2013

HelgaCon VI - Overview

A week ago, I got back from our historical gaming crew's (now people pretty far-flung indeed) annual mini-gaming convention in Massachusetts. We rent a house by the sea, pile in about 20 people, and bunker down for games of skill, luck, roleplaying, giant digital presentations, and ridiculous props. It's one of the highlights of my year, and it's really great to get back in touch with people I see far too rarely. And also meet some fresh faces who are new to RPG's, and get to see how they interact with the play, which is always fascinating.

Overview of the weekend: On Friday, I hitch a ride from New York to Massachusetts via Paul's brother Max. I'm carrying just a light bag, because we decided to not repeat my Book of War tournament which I ran the last few years (and thus I don't have to take crates full of miniatures with me). I almost always fall asleep in-transit, so travel seems short to me. We start the games Friday night: I'm in Paul's “Back to Basics” D&D game with four other players, a very nice dungeon crawl with the much-celebrated Moldvay Basic D&D book on the table. This was using a dungeon map by Dyson Logos (link), with stocking by Paul, and something he's run other players through – which left behind lots of destroyed scenery, dead adventurer bodies, and burned monsters for us to encounter along the way. We had one very hairy encounter, in a dead-end shrine area, where taking a treasure tripped an alarm and something like 20 zombies and ghouls came storming up the stairs at our group of 3rd-level adventurers. Fortunately, good team tactics and a flurry of spells, turning, and flaming oil turned the tide, and we escaped without any losses.

Saturday morning our friend BJ (website) ran an extravagantly-prepared adventure called “Voyage of the Star Condor”; in the afternoon I ran a classic-D&D session of AD&D Module D1: “Descent Into the Depths of the Earth”; and the evening session was another of our annual sessions of BJ's Arabian-themed “Thousand Year Sandglass” campaign. Sunday morning I ran a Star Frontiers adventure that I recently wrote (since I seem to have that on the brain as of late), “Asteroid 0X57”. Then we cleaned up, took a group photo, and said our goodbyes – the weekend seemed far too short. (These other games I'll plan to write some blogs on their own about.)

Side Note 1: Paul (of “Paul's Blog” fame) organizes the gathering every year, including finding and renting a place, creating a schedule for game submissions and sign-ups, chasing after late entries, organizing a cooperative cooking schedule, running games, running for groceries, cleaning the place up, etc. He also has a custom-made scheduling program that takes every attendee's preferences for the 14 games over the weekend, and spits out the best possible sequence and player participation for all of the games (something that other conventions should do if they were smart). I really don't know how he does it, on top of trying to sell a house, settling into a new job in the last year, and also gearing up a new indie video game on the side. So huge kudos to Paul. (You should check out the trailer for his new, very old-school-influenced game that he's working on: Road of Kings.)

Side Note 2: The last few months have been busy for me too, starting a new school semester, having a long visit with family, and preparing myself for HelgaCon. I'm hopeful (as usual) that I'll have more time for writing, blogging, gaming, and getting in touch with people in the near future.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

SciFi Saturday – Unwrapping Sathar Minis

Today I'm opening up the "Sathar Ships" (bad guy) miniatures for the Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks game, which have been patiently lurking in this box for me to open them for the last 30 years. You may remember from last time that a major concern is a claim that the packaging material can react with and degrade the lead miniatures, so we'll keep a close eye on that.

Starting with the mint-condition box.

Cutting off the shrink wrap.

Opening the box.

Uncovering the packed miniatures inside.

Here's how they're initially laid out in the packaging in my box. Next, we'll inspect the individual miniatures:

Pirate Assault Scout #1 -- The first three ships are actually rogue pirates from the UPF (technically there's only 3 actual Sathar ships in the box). This assault scout looks fine to me.

Pirate Assault Scout #2 -- Now, this is listed on the back box cover as another "pirate assault scout" (and that's all the conversion book has statistics for), but to my eye, this is identical to the "Pirate Corvette" counter from the original board game (with stats appearing in the introductory module, SFKH0 Warriors of White Light). So I'll lean towards calling this a Corvette, but obviously we can use this to represent any scout-type ship we need in a given game.

Pirate Frigate -- The largest ship owned by any non-UPF Spacefleet humans, this pirate frigate has its side weapons-mounts a bit bent, but that's easily fixable and I don't see any other problems with the sculpture.

Sathar Frigate --It's a little bit odd that they decided to include a Frigate among the 3 Sathar ship miniatures, because the Sathar use a much higher proportion of Destroyers among their forces (missing from this collection). Of course, for a given game we could just declare this miniature to represent a Destroyer, as needed (although it's the same size, or a tiny bit smaller, than the UPF frigate). This is definitely the most mangled miniature of the bunch, with one engine strut bent entirely over the body of the ship. Hope I don't snap it off when I go to fix it.

Sathar Light Cruiser -- A very nice and clean sculpture to my eye.

Sathar Heavy Cruiser -- And here's the "big boss" of the Sathar forces, the flagship Heavy Cruiser type. It comes in a whole bunch of pieces (like the UPF Battleship), with a hollow body (unlike the battleship), and a bunch of engine struts to assemble.

Closeup -- The Heavy Cruiser does have a few patches of discoloration on it (whitish region below), which is the only place on any of the miniatures that I can see to attribute to the degrading-package problem. Whether that's the case or not, it seems like this will be easy to clean up, maybe with a little sandpaper and alcohol, followed by a coat of paint.

Summary -- While the UPF miniature sculptures have a lot more detail to them, the Sathar ship designs have a certain spidery elegance which I've always thought to be a lot more evocative and imagination-catching (in years past, whenever I made drawings, cardboard models, or 3D animations for Knight Hawks ships, it was always the Sathar attack vessels that I'd be depicting). The warning that getting a shrink-wrapped package of SFKH minis would be like "buying a box of little better tha[n] lead dust" seems very much overblown, based on this evidence. Given my experience with two boxes of Knight Hawks ships, I'd give a very confident recommendation that if you were to procure a shrink-wrapped mint box at this date, then you'd be quite happy with the product inside.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

SciFi Saturday – Race to Raurtige Scenario

Continuing our series of new scenarios for the Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks game, here's one featuring a battle near a nonstandard, gas-giant-sized planet. The planet Raurtige here broadly resembles the planet Saturn; I like this size (12 hexes in diameter) because it neatly divides the standard hexmap into thirds -- the planet takes up the middle and leaves two channels on either side for navigation. Use the Saturn-sized graphic from last week's SFKH post; and note that for the example in our own Solar System, there is one world-sized moon approximately two map-boards distant, and numerous other small moons and a ring system that can be effectively ignored.

One other item: This game features a UPF Light Cruiser, and although I'd like all these scenarios to be usable in either the Basic or Advanced games,  the Basic Game doesn't include any statistics for the that ship type. Therefore I present applicable stats for the Light Cruiser below (basically splitting the difference between the Destroyer and Heavy Cruiser types):
Light Cruiser (in Basic Game):
HP 70, ADF 2, MR 2;
Weapons: LC, LBx2, T(4), RB(7);
Defenses: RH, MS (x2), ICM (x6).
Have fun!

Scenario Delta-4: RACE TO RAURTIGE

An otherwise unremarkable star system outside settled Frontier space suddenly begins beaming a broadcast message in an alien language! On the off chance that this represents some technological or resource advantage, both the UPF and Sathar forces send fast task forces to the giant gas-planet of Raurtige, from which the beacon is transmitting. Each has orders to drive off the other side.

UPF Ships
  1. UPFS Valorous (Light Cruiser)
  2. UPFS Melinda McCoy (Destroyer)
  3. UPFS Lancet (Assault Scout)
  4. UPFS K'Riss (Assault Scout)

Sathar Ships
  1. SAV Balefire (Destroyer)
  2. SAV Corruption (Destroyer)
  3. SAV Disease (Frigate)
  4. SAV Convulsion (Frigate)

Setting Up. The gas giant Raurtige is placed in the middle of the map, centered at hex 2720 (12 hexes in diameter, it takes up about 1/3 the width of the map). Each player sets up on opposite short ends of the map, with all their ships traveling at a speed of 10. Roll dice to determine which player sets up and moves first.

Special Rules. The giant planet's gravity field is so strong that any ship may take an extra turn towards the planet during its movement, if so desired. In addition, orbiting can be done at any point on the map board; pick a location, reduce ship speed to 0, and the ship will continue moving at 1 hex/turn at a constant distance from the planet.

Victory Conditions. Whichever player drives off all the opposing ships is declared to be the winner.