SFKH – Skirmish Scenario Play

Here's a play-through of the Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks Scenario Delta-1 that was posted last Saturday. This was a game at my friend John's place as I introduced him to the game (lighting not so great over his kitchen table). His first game I played the UPF and pretty much wrecked him right off the bat (even accidentally giving myself a smaller ship than the scenario dictates). This will be his second game, and in response he's chosen the UPF and cooked up a fairly novel strategy.

Turn 1 -- I have a house-rule which prohibits starting the game with a speed above 10 hexes/turn. Partly to short-circuit this rule, what John's doing is have his UPF forces circle on the far side of the board as they increase speed. My Sathar destroyer and frigate are plowing directly forward towards this trap.

Turn 3 -- John's having a bit of troubling controlling his ships (just his 2nd game, after all), and the assault scout's gotten a bit farther ahead than his two frigates.I take the opportunity to accelerate forward and pick off his forward scout with laser-cannon fire. This succeeds, blowing up the scout, and I now have an advantage in total ship firepower.

Turn 4 -- John takes this opportunity, using his frigate's increased speed, to jump my ships and the first close-up attacks (only the moving player can use the powerful Torpedo weapons, nuclear missiles in space, so they constitute a very important offensive capability). He lands several shots on my destroyer -- but interceptor missiles (ICM's) ward off the torpedoes, and the destroyer is tough enough to withstand the hits it takes.

Turn 5 --  With somewhat reduced mobility, I am forced to circle around my Sathar ships to the side of the board, hoping to catch the enemy in a turn or two. Here John plots out his next move. He will actually succeed in landing the next offensive attack, but his attack dice are so poor that he lands almost no hits at all, and my defensive fire actually blows up one of his two frigates.

Turn 8 -- On this move I made a rather broad turn after his remaining frigate; I could directly catch it with my own frigate, but the best my sluggish and highly damaged destroyer could do is a fly-by from 4 hexes away (40K km for you exacting types). John aimed defensive fire to finish him off, landing hits, and the destroyer finally blew up. My frigate launched all its weapons at his remaining vessel, landing almost every one (laser cannon, laser battery, and torpedo), and the resulting huge damage roll decisively finished him off. Victory to the Sathar!

Commentary -- Honestly, John was really robbed of this game; his attack and damage rolls were miserable, while mine were spectacular all the time. I made at least one mistake in movement to allow him another attack (circa turn 7), but escaped when his only hit took left my destroyer with 2 hull points (out of an initial 50). An interesting opening strategy of circling the far board to gain speed -- again, basically a dodge of my maximum initial speed rule, and a tactic the reminds me of Steve Jackson's advice for the Ogre game (have the Ogre putter around its side of the board until the opposition gets frustrated and breaks out of formation to get it).


Survey of D&D Classics PDFs

So here's a somewhat more comprehensive survey of what's currently available at the new DnDClassics.com website (started last week as a partnership between WOTC and DriveThruRPG). The site currently has a total of 87 products, broken down by edition (Basic and 1E-4E).

Basic/Expert – 12 products. Specifically: The B-adventure modules (B1-12, with the exception of the B/X bridge B10, Night's Dark Terror), and the D&D Basic Set Rulebook (by Moldvay, 1981). Most popular: D&D Basic Set Rulebook (#1 of 87 on the site).

1st Edition – 23 products. Includes: Fiend Folio, Deities & Demigods, Manual of the Planes, Greyhawk Adventures (1E/2E bridge product), along with modules in the following series: C, D, G, N, OP, Q, T, and U. Most popular: T1-4 Temple of Elemental Evil (#2 of 87).

2nd Edition – 20 products. Mostly various adventures and the historical Campaign Sourcebooks (HR1-7). Most popular: Greyhawk Adventures, the 1E/2E bridge product. (#24 of 87).

3rd Edition – 19 products. Includes the 3E core adventures, as well as the 3.5 Rules Compendium, Player's Handbook II, Dungeon Master's Guide II, Fiend Folio, Unearthed Arcana, Manual of the Planes, Expanded Psionics Handbook, and the Epic Level Handbook. Most popular: Grand History of the Realms (#33 of 87).

4th Edition – 9 products. Includes a few adventures (including H1, HS1), the Quickstart Starter Set, and Dragon/Dungeon Magazine Annuals Volume 1. Most popular: Dungeon Delve (#48 of 87).

Conclusions: In their initial offering, the people putting together the D&D Classics site have concentrated more on the earlier editions (the most products for 1E, the least for 4E, etc.) Fairly extensive historical background notes have been added by Shannon Appelcline for Basic, 1E, and 2E materials – but not for 3E or 4E. Somewhat oddly, they've avoided presenting any of the core rulebooks, with the exception of the D&D Basic Set Rulebook, and arguably, the 3.5 Rules Compendium (and probably this helps explain why the Basic rulebook holds the #1 spot for sales at the site).

Campaign-setting materials are clearly popular, with the most popular 2E product being the Greyhawk Adventures hardcover (a very weak product IMO; I don't recommend it), and the most popular 3E product being the Grand History of the Realms. Hey, isn't that the reverse of what 2E/3E presented as their "default" campaign settings? Anyway, more grist for the mill: looking at 2E, the second- and third-most popular are also Greyhawk-branded items (Greyhawk Player's Guide at #25 overall at the site, and Greyhawk: The Adventure Begins at #27).

One might be tempted to use this opportunity to compare the popularity of various editions at the site, which I think are publicly on sale together for the first time ever. Comparing the most-popular products in each category (or average popularity rating, or a number of other possible measures), it's easy to see that the best sellers are the Basic/Expert and 1st Edition materials, followed by a steep dropoff for 2E, 3E, and 4E, in that order. But this is clearly biased by what products the developers have chosen to present at this time, the fact that the only full core rulebook available is the D&D Basic Set Rulebook, and other similar considerations.

Update 2021: After a few years, the DnDClassics.com address was retired, and that now redirects to the DM's Guild site. Alternatively, you can use the following affiliate link to search for any of the classic D&D products (and help support the Wandering DMs channel at the same time) at -- DriveThruRPG.


SciFi Saturday – Skirmish Scenario

One thing about Douglas Niles' Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks game is that it comes with a very small number of pre-made scenarios (2 for the Basic game, and 2 for the Advanced), and it has no system for setting up, deciding on, or balancing other games for players so interested. This is the same strategy used for his Battlesystem Fantasy Combat Supplement, and it can be criticized as giving relatively small replay value out of the box. Other games such as the original Chainmail or my own Book of War go the other route -- no premade scenarios but a system for randomly generating such -- and thus give effectively infinite replay value in a shorter amount of printed space.

The other problem with Niles' few scenarios in Knight Hawks is that they're designed to communicate the  flavor of the campaign situation in the Second Sathar War, and so they're intentionally very unbalanced in favor of one side. In particular, the very first scenario is a ridiculously lopsided event where a pair of huge Sathar ships come blasting into a minimally-defended system, and the UPF player is tasked simply with evacuation and retreat. Not a fantastic way to introduce new players to the product or build up the normal tactical sense necessary for the game (unless, I suppose, they enjoy dominating as the bad guys -- like my own girlfriend).

So in the near future I'll plan to present a series of alternate scenarios that you might consider using, especially if you're presenting the game to new players at some point. Hopefully these scenarios will accomplish a few things: (a) Generally expand the play options from the published book, (b) Present more balanced games where either player has some chance of victory, and (c) More slowly build up the body of rules used for the games (for example: the first scenario below avoids any gravity wells or orbiting bodies, and just uses rudimentary ship movement). These alternate scenarios will be given a "Delta" designator (of course), and you should be able to play them under either Basic or Advanced Game rules, according to your (and your other players') preference. In a future post, I'll try to sketch out some ideas for balancing new games on the fly.

Scenario Delta-1: SKIRMISH

Near the start of the Second Sathar War, reports of unfamiliar ships on the Frontier border have caused the UPF to increase its regular patrols. On the far edge of the Timeon system, one of these patrols encounters a small scouting force of Sathar vessels. Each side wishes to score an early, decisive victory. 

UPF Ships
  1. UPFS Shimmer (Frigate)
  2. UPFS Flying Cloud (Frigate)
  3. UPFS Morning Star (Assault Scout)
Sathar Ships
  1. SAV Nemesis (Destroyer)
  2. SAV Hellscar (Frigate)
Setting Up. Each force is set up on opposite short ends of the map, traveling at a speed of 10 or less. Otherwise the map is just empty space. Roll dice to determine which player sets up and moves first.

Victory Conditions. Whichever player destroys or drives off all opposing ships from the map is declared the winner. If the winning player had only one ship that survived, then it is a marginal victory; otherwise it is a major victory.


D&D Classics PDFs Online

So the big news of the day is that after a 4-year interdiction on the practice, the owners of the classic D&D properties have made many of them once again available online as purchasable PDFs. This is being done through the new DnDClassics.com website, under the auspices of well-known seller DriveThruRPG (through which you can also access the same books).

At first blush, the site looks pretty good (I haven't done a comprehensive review or bought anything from the new site -- I got the stuff I really wanted back when it was available pre-2009). The layout and search look reasonably useful, and I must say that the historical background info for each product, written by Shannon Appelcline ("Product Historian"), looks really spot-on and impressive.

Now, in keeping with the raison d'ĂȘtre of this blog, the first thing I noticed, and the biggest disappointment, is that the Original D&D little-brown books from the 1973 era are not available. Even though this wasn't the edition that I first started with, after considered thought it is now my favorite edition to run and play, and the one in which the motivations for the classic D&D traditions are most crisply on display (there are plenty of things in later editions that I didn't really understanding until I looked at OD&D). In some sense it is the most cohesive and complete edition, with rules for all character levels from 1 to infinity, all ranges of monsters/spells/treasure, rules for wilderness-aerial-naval-strongholds, all right out of the very concise box. Of course, this has been my position since the start of this blog (see the First Post in the sidebar).

So my initial hope is that, in addition to the 1st-4th edition products available at the new site, at some point WOTC will also add scanned PDFs for the Original D&D books, which would be my highest recommendation for anyone to procure, study, modify, and play with.

But in lieu of that choice, my 2nd choice would be: the Moldvay Basic D&D set from 1981. Again not the edition that I started with (it was the earlier Holmes Basic D&D book that first captured my imagination), but the more I look at the work of Moldvay over the years, the more impressed I am by it. He made quite a few changes, and those changes almost always show evidence of a very deep understanding of the classic D&D rules, and a great talent to streamline the rougher points with very brief, eminently playable edits. It still keeps a lot of the great flavor, energy, and excitement that somehow got steam-pressed out in the later Mentzer publication. The two great regrets I have for the Moldvay edition: the invention of race-as-class (cutting down the interesting permutations for starting PCs), and the fact that the sample randomized dungeon at the end is fairly uninspiring.

So it's to their credit that what WOTC has presented for a Basic D&D rulebook is the Moldvay edition (the Holmes, Mentzer, etc. versions are not available at this time), and in fact it's currently the #1 selling item at both the DndClassics classics and the overarching DriveThruRPG itself. You can, in fact, get a complete, playable, official, classic D&D game in one single book for about $5 once again as of today. If you're someone that never had classic D&D books in hand, or you're introducing the hobby to new players young or old, then I can give a completely confident recommendation that you should get a Moldvay D&D Basic PDF to check out and begin playing. Hopefully there will also be the Original old-school classics on the way at some point in the future, as well. 

You can use the following affiliate link to get the Moldvay D&D Basic rules (and help support the Wandering DMs channel at the same time):

Moldvay D&D Basic Set Rulebook (B/X) at DriveThruRPG


SciFi Saturday – Sathar Ship Profiles

In the Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks game materials, there is a bit of inconsistency in how the different Sathar ship types are portrayed. Let's take a look at respectively: (1) the original counter sheet (Sathar capital ship section), (2) the "Enemy Silhouette Recognition Card" (from the Tactical Manual p. 7), and (3) the official metal miniatures box (back cover).

Now, what you'll see above is that there's an obvious contradiction between the counters & recognition card -- what are identified as the "Frigate" and "Destroyer" are clearly reversed in those two depictions. Traditionally I thought that the counters were correct, because there at least the Frigate is shown as smaller than the Destroyer (as per their game statistics).

But there's yet another problem if we look at the back of the miniatures box -- look closely at that "Heavy Cruiser" miniature and compare to the recognition card above it. The number of knobby bits (weapons batteries, I presume), overall placement, and the surrounding ellipsoidal side features really more closely match what the recognition card calls a "Destroyer". The miniature lacks any diagonal "V-neck" feature as shown on the recognition card. And it would be really most consistent for the Heavy Cruiser to have the greatest number of weapons knobs on display, of any of the ship types.

So my best guess at this time is that: (1) it's the miniatures box that has the correct identification of the "Heavy Cruiser" and other ship types, (2) the recognition card needs the names of all the top three ship types rotated clockwise, and (3) the counter sheet may have had the illustrations for the Sathar "Destroyer" and "Heavy Cruiser" reversed.

Who's to blame for this terrible mix up? Well, obviously I blame a campaign of deception and misinformation by nefarious Sathar saboteurs; probably they broke into a computer system somewhere and scrambled the files to sew confusion. Egad, I hate them so much! [Shakes fist]

Anyway, it's easily corrected if you're of a mind to so. A side-benefit is certainly that the graphically largest illustration now represents the largest and most powerful ship type, which should make it easier for new players to intuit which is which. Below you'll see a corrected Sathar counter sheet for Destroyers & Heavy Cruisers (print at 300 dpi, paste to some thick cardboard, and cut out), and also a corrected recognition card, as noted above. Don't let those slimy Sathar get away with their scurrilous schemes!

[Thanks to StarFrontiers.com for the counter-sheet and recognition card scans.]


SciFi Saturday – Boardgame House Rules

The Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks game is a pretty tight set of tactical rules, and shows evidence of actual playtesting; I don't think that it needs a major overhaul, but I have found a few places where it benefits from some touch-ups. My current house rules for the game are presented below; we'll see if these change by the end of the year or not. Some of these items will be given more detail or explanation in future blog posts.

Knight Hawks Boardgame House Rules

  1. Starting Speeds: Ships should not start the game with speed more than 10 hexes/turn. This prevents one-sided opening moves where an attacker can cover the entire distance to the defender, and launch an unstoppable attack before the defender can respond, move, or even raise shields. (This is particularly unfair in the Campaign Game, where the Sathar player can easily meet their victory condition by bombarding each space station on turn 1, and then jumping off the other edge of the map on turn 2.)
  2. Orbital Movement: A ship or station in close orbit around an Earth-sized planet should travel 1/2 hex per turn, i.e., 1 hex every other turn (not 1 hex/turn as in the rulebook). Note that other, much more massive planets may permit faster orbit speeds. Orbital movement should be made after normal ship movement.
  3. Space Stations: Docking and undocking ships from a space station should be done as the first step in the sequence of play, prior to any other movement. Ships that are docked cannot fire any weapons whatsoever (which would contradict background info on how ships dock inside a station). Docked ship counters can be stacked under the station, or off to the side of the game map. Note that statistics for stations in the Campaign Book are higher than those in the Tactical Manual, and may be preferred for use in several scenarios.
  4. Assault Carriers: Carriers mostly use the same rules as for stations (launching/landing at start of turn, etc.). Fighters start with the same speed and direction as the carrier that launched them; and landing likewise requires matching speed and direction with the home carrier (not speed 0, as given in the published rules).
  5. Assault Scouts: Assault Scouts are given 25 hull points (not 15 as in the published rules).

Note that the sequence of play for movement changes a little bit under the house rules above (compare to Tactical Manual p. 3 and 10). The Movement Phase is now recommended to follow this sequence: (a) activate defensive screens, (b) dock/undock ships, (c) move seeker missiles, (d) move standard ships, (e) move orbiting ships and stations.

A few other rule highlights or things to keep in mind: For any scenario, I fill out ship rosters (copied from the Campaign Book) in ink, with game effects in pencil, so I can erase and re-use them later. When ships move, I usually mark the initial space with a face-down counter (a "tee", if you will) to help justify the move speed and defensive fire. So, for simplicity I also rule that defensive fire is permitted in that initial space (although someone might counter-argue the "hex they moved through" language). And recall that limited-supply rocket weapons can only be fired once per turn (see p. 5, under "Rate of Fire"; I once got in a big argument with a friend over this and couldn't find the exact line in the book to show them at the time).

Finally, the other thing I usually do is hand each player a card with the relevant game weapons tables. There are a few glitches in the published tables, like -- hit percentages differ between Basic and Advanced games (compare torpedoes and lasers-vs-masking-screens); laser cannons do get half damage vs. screens in 2 references but not in 1 (compare p. 6, 12, and back cover); and half damage is rounded up in 3 references but down in 1 (ibid). Perhaps these differences are leftovers from early drafts of the rules. Now, for the Advanced Game charts you can just photocopy the back cover of the rulebook. For the Basic Game, I've made a consolidated weapons chart which, in conjunction with ship rosters, is everything a player needs to know (fixes to the preceding have taken a "majority rules" criteria). Download this image below and print it on cardstock, or get a triplicate PDF version here.


Sunday Night Book of War

Last Sunday night we had some lovely friends over, whom we know from music projects, and who had never played any RPGs or wargames in their life. But they did notice the big stack of games that I've got in the closet (behind the coats), and they also noticed my display case of miniatures, especially the big war elephants on top -- not that they had any idea why anyone would have a bunch of miniature figures like that.

First of all we played a game of Clue, sort of as a test to see how they reacted to our serious gaming style -- and we were much enticed by the fact that were absolutely as wildly competitive and hard-core about it as we were (feeling the endgame approaching, I took a chancy accusation -- but I didn't have the right room, and that triggered a sequence of off-by-one accusations around the table until my girlfriend Isabelle won). That's still a great and unique game if you can find enough people to play. An aside: I'm playing on what is now a 50-year-old game set (older than me).

So then I took a chance and suggested bringing out Book of War, which everyone was game for. I split our little house party into two teams, with me refereeing and Isabelle giving strategy advice to both sides. Picking out the figures and setting up the terrain seemed to really excite everyone and fire their imaginations. The photo below is pretty hard to see, but the higher side picked War Elephants and Horse Archers (with a few Pikes); while the lower side picked Goblins, Wolf Riders, and Gnoll Archers.

Once play began, the upper side (horse archers and elephants) really suffered from a bunch of novice tactical choices. First, they had placed the Hill on the far side, which is of course was a gift that the opposition could take with their big longbow-wielding gnolls and use for a commanding position the rest of the game. Second, they ran their horse archers piecemeal into the big open space on the left-hand side of the board, where they were basically shot down mercilessly without the goblin player ever needing to move. The endgame saw the remaining figure of War Elephants stomp down the Wolf Riders and one of the units of gnolls, but once the space was cleared from that melee, it was a foregone conclusion that the longbows on the hill would make them die a heroic death.

So a couple of things, as I continue to introduce RPGs and wargaming to creative people who have never played them or known about them before (usually in their 30's and 40's). One is that if I start by asking their preferred genre choice of fantasy-scifi-or-superheroes, they usually ask for "science fiction" (which is partly why I'm giving that some emphasis in my SciFi Saturday posts at the moment). Two is, that being said, if you want to attract someone to the game, then having colorful and attractive miniature figures really does a great lure-them-in-job, before I even broach the subject of gaming myself -- especially War Elephants, 'cuz damn, who doesn't love some elephants? Three is that even my minimalist little 8-page BOW Basic Game counts as being "way too intense/complicated" for about half the people who try it out, which I think is something to keep in mind about how biased our expectations are as lifelong gamers, and how a game almost can't be "too simple" if your goal was to aim it at current non-gamers.

Although: That latter point could be emotionally correlated with the half who lose the game on their first encounter. The player running the goblin forces here (i.e., the rather stark winner in the conflict above), immediately picked up on a lot of the themes and strategy for the game -- and commented on the excitement and drama around morale checks, how it was generally realistic in regards to medieval warfare, delighted by how we could include fantastical elements like goblins and wolf riders, etc. So he wound up really excited at the end, and pointedly asked if he could come over again sometime and play some more, etc. I sent him off with a copy of the rules and I dare say that I have more fresh meat for my games. :-)


SciFi Saturday – 30 Years of Knight Hawks

The Star Frontiers science-fiction RPG was published in 1982, notably lacking any rules for spaceship travel or combat. The next year, amid eager anticipation (as I recall), TSR published the spaceship-combat supplement called Knight Hawks, designed by Douglas Niles (who also designed the D&D mass combat system of the era, Battlesystem). Therefore 2013 marks the 30th anniversary of the Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks game.

I played a lot of the Knight Hawks game, probably at least as much actual gameplay as any other RPG that I ever owned. One of the delightful aspects of the game is that it comes with two separate rulebooks: one, a 16-page "Tactical Operations Manual" which details a self-contained hex-based boardgame; and two, a 64-page "Campaign Book" on how spaceships integrate with the Star Frontiers RPG, designing and purchasing spaceships, useful campaign background, and a grand campaign of all-out war throughout the Frontier. It's a very nice package, and I used it both for RPG play and actually playing out the full "Second Sathar War" with a friend staying at my house for a week's time one summer. The boardgame is also very well suited for solitaire play and experimentation (except in rare circumstances, there's no hidden information), and so I used to do that quite a lot as teenager growing up in the backwoods of Maine.

Among my most indelible gaming memories is the day I got the Knight Hawks game and brought it back from the store, back when I was 12 years old. I'd excitedly been looking for such a product since the release of Star Frontiers -- it seemed like forever (at one point I almost picked up Traveller's Trillion Credit Squadron to fill the gap) -- but of course it was but a single year. I think I ripped off the box's shrink-wrapping in the back of my parents' car, and started eagerly reading. I got as far as the 3rd page of the boardgame rules, discussing movement, acceleration, and deceleration, when I read this:
TOP SPEED. Ships do not have a top speed. They can accelerate to any speed, but players may find that ships traveling very fast will be forced to leave the map.

Well, this just immediately blew my mind. I was accustomed to several different RPG vehicle combat systems, and of course the principal characteristic of vehicles in those system is their top speed, which I was expecting to see explained here. But here was something completely different, a brief rule inspired by actual physical phenomena, which completely upended how I saw the greater universe itself. I can vividly recall the moment that I can only describe as real, cosmic insight. I realized that not only would I have to play this particular game in an altogether different tactical fashion, but I also knew something more about the limitless space around me, and that it also made sense on a level deeper than I'd appreciated before.

Now, this fact (that a ship in space won't have any limit on how much it can accelerate, short of light-speed) may seem like a trivial observation when I make it today.  I'd like to say that my 12-year-old self should have known that, or been able to deduce it. But: (a) clearly, I didn't, (b) some other adults that I explain this to today are still initially stumped by it, and (c) it took an embarrassingly long time afterward before I also figured out that turning the nose of one's spaceship wouldn't have any effect on the direction that it was traveling (something that the Knight Hawks game does not correctly simulate).

Thus, I can't emphasize enough what a transformative moment that was for me, in that short little Knights Hawks boardgame book -- on the first day that I ripped it open, smelled the fresh printer's ink, and started reading it. I'd say the fact that it was a fun game was a minor, almost negligibly important virtue -- it also taught me real, usable facts about the world, and indeed, changed how I looked at the universe. In my view, that is the gold-standard for game design, and the best justification for gaming in the first place.

So: For the near future of 2013 I'll plan to write a regular "SciFi Saturday" post about some aspect or addition to the Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks game. I hope you'll climb into your spacesuit, strap on a pearl-handled laser pistol, and join me at the master control panel for at least part of it. Happy new year!

[Photo courtesy boardgamegeek.com]