More Sprechenhaltestelle

In the last post, many of us were scratching our collective heads over the very cryptic identifiers, roles, and connections of the many NPC's in Merele Rasmussen's original Top Secret mini-setting, Sprechenhaltestelle.

To help untangle this puzzle, I spent some time this weekend making a master roster of all the personnel in the setting, cross-indexed by described role and location day and night (as well as gender and nationality, as noted for their highest language score).

One thing this really highlights is how the module is designed as a mystery for the reader. Most of the street-level locations and personnel appear generally innocent, or with at most some arch foreshadowing; whereas when they appear in the below-street level section key, their dark secrets are revealed. In many cases, particularly for members of Amontillado Alley this runs on some pun on their above-ground role (the printer is a counterfeiter, the butcher a surgeon, the gypsy palm reader a seller of surveillance gear, the cobbler who helps you walk properly procures motor vehicles, etc.). Also, the numerical area codes for this area are usually synchronized from above-to-below ground (I never noticed that before).

The personnel codes are clearly not completely uniform in their usage. Here's the best pattern-making that I could make with them:

Groups in Sprechenhaltestelle
  • A: Amontillado Alley personnel and assistants (mostly)
  • B: Busboy, barber, beautician, butcher (mostly)
  • C: No recognizable pattern?
  • D: Detention (mostly)
  • G: Guards at warehouses
  • S: Surface personnel (some associated with AA)
  • U: Underground personnel (at Pair-A-Dice)
  • W: Waitresses (mostly)
  • X, Y, Z: Civilians not associated with spycraft (leave town at night, no contacts or code phrases)
Individuals in Sprechenhaltestelle
  • L1: Launderer
  • R1: Waiter (?)
  • WS1: Wine steward
  • HC: Hotel cook
  • HD: Hotel dishwasher
  • HSO: Hotel switchboard operator
  • NSO: Nighttime switchboard operator
  • WCS: Wood carving sailor, a.k.a. wino, crazed in sewer. 

Below,  you'll find links to the complete roster that I compiled. Not everything got filled; there are a number of NPC's for whom I could find no description of their role at all in the key (notably: C2, C3, C15, S2, S4, and S120). A few others didn't specify where they spend their nights (S1, HD), and many didn't specify a particular gender. Another thing that could be added here (if I was going to run the adventure) would be random names based on their observed nationality (again, inferred from their best language score; see Top Secret rulebook p. 6, all-caps section: native fluency must be scored highest).

Can you fill in the missing roles for those mystery personnel (perhaps by doing some detective work with the contacts list)? Can you see any pattern for the "C" personnel that I'm missing?


Top Secret and Sprechenhaltestelle

Back in the day, TSR's espionage game Top Secret was, I think the second RPG I ever got after D&D. Mostly this was just due to its release date as I became aware of RPGs, and possibly the modern setting. I was a complete blank slate about the spy/espionage genre, and frankly I think I played/admin'd the game very, very badly indeed. At some point I boxed it up and it's probably the most rarely-looked-at game that I own.

Well, about a month ago the Hulu online TV service got rights to play most of the original James Bond movies, and during lunch breaks I started to watch them, for the first time ever, in the original chronology. I'd say it's delightfully loopy. The young Sean Connery is truly a pleasure just to watch move around a room. And the gestures in these movies echo throughout all later action and superhero movies and comics, so I feel a lot more learned about all those references now. And of course I was prompted to open up Top Secret again and view it through more informed eyes about the genre expectations. (One thing about the old games: they assumed that you had intimate knowledge of the outside genre, and in many cases gave pretty naked mechanics for these things they assumed you could recognize by name.)

One thing that's attractive is the dictum: "Unlike many role-playing games, TOP SECRET games are best with a smaller number of players... the simple, straightforward missions are ideally suited to a minimum of players; the Admin, of course, and perhaps one or two agents." (p. 4). Particularly so that I've been doing a lot of solo play at the request of my partner Isabelle lately; and this is again something that was very bent, in the opposite direction, when I played the game as a teenager with my D&D buddies. So then I opened up the sample adventure module (really a mini-campaign setting), Operation: Sprechenhaltestelle by game creator Merle Rasmussen, for more guidance on how to design an espionage RPG mission.

A few things: The map of the small European city is very clean and attractive, even while giving a very dense amount of content and places to explore. The format is the same as D&D Module B1: In Search of the Unknown -- locations are described with dressing, and then space is given to add extra unique characters and treasures from a list at the back of the module. The first four pages of introductory advice are in fact mostly copied from the B1 text and lightly altered for the modern-day espionage setting (it even talks about "order of march", etc.). The group size is somewhat larger than the core rules indicate; party size is likely four or more characters (bolstered by NPCs if needed).

I count almost 120 characters pre-stocked in the setting. Somewhat awkwardly, none are given names (which seems a bit against type; in the 007 films among the most important highlights is revealing the outrageous names of the characters, with the single best-known catchphrase of course being "Bond, James Bond"; but this could be due to space limitations in the publication). Characters each have a "Personnel Code"which keys to a big table at the back of the module with ability scores, skills, languages, contacts, secrets, and weapons.

The thing that mystified me is that the Personnel Codes have a prefix which is clearly non-random, but is not given any clear definition in the module itself. For example: there are characters A1 to A11; B1 to B6; C1-23, then C143, C144, C210, CC; D1-4; G1-7; L1 and R1; S1-21, followed by S72, S120, S0, and SS14; U01 to U15; W1 to W3 and WS1; X1 to X9; Y1 and Y2; HC, HD, HS0, NS0, WCS, Z1, and Z2. These NPCs are scattered throughout the setting, and don't not appear together in any recognizable way; for example, the Hotel includes characters C4, C5, C18, C143, C144, HS0, HC, HD, S2, S3, and NS0. I flipped through the book more than once trying to find an explanation for these seemingly-important prefixes.

Fortunately, I was able to get in touch with the creator, Merle Rasmussen, on Facebook, and he most graciously answered my question about it. He wrote:
Thanks for the question. I had to go find a 35 year old copy of OPERATION: SPRECHENHALTESTELLE. For A, B, and S, I cannot remember any underlying meaning to the Personnel Code Prefixes. CC refers to Cafe Cook which may have been added after the C codes were assigned. WCS refers to Homicidal Wino, but the underlying meaning escapes me. Although I cannot find UU, I am guessing the U stands for "Underground." B seems to stand for "Busboy, Barber, Beautician, and Butcher" G seems to stand for "Guard." Someone with more time may be able to figure out a pattern. Sorry to be so obtuse.
Of course, I don't that's obtuse at all, in fact very helpful (and quite beyond what some would do to  actually look up the reference in a work they published 35 years ago). This at least indicates that the prefixes are mostly job categories, and not necessarily, say, faction alliances or something like that.

And this does given us a Rosetta Stone to start decoding those Personnel Codes. Looking at the Hotel area, for example (area 1. in the adventure), the hotel staff seem to mostly have the "H" prefix, while others must be guests -- HS0 is the hotel switchboard operator, HC the hotel cook, HD the hotel dishwasher, NS0 the nighttime switchboard operator, C5 the front-desk clerk. In the outdoor Cafe (area 3) -- CC is the cafe cook, W1 and W2 are waitresses, while C7 and R1 are waiters, B1 a busboy, and WS1 a wine steward. On the other hand, there's a sniper on a rooftop with personnel code of B6 (definitely not a busboy). So there are some suggestive patterns, but it's not totally consistent.

Is there any other decryption that you can accomplish on the Sprechenhaltestelle Personnel Codes?

Edit: More here.


Mark Fickett Rolls Lots of Dice

Mark Fickett got really serious about checking dice experimentally for fairness. He constructed a mechanism that automaticallyy a die every 4½ seconds and ran that on different dice, around 8000 times each, until he could analyze all the different dice from major manufacturers. There are charts, videos, statistics, and construction details.

One interesting finding that Mark makes for this experiment, regarding number of rolls per die, is: "This leads me to a heuristic of 100 rolls per side (800 for a d8, 2000 for a d20). It is of course a subjective heuristic." This broadly lines up with my own prior recommendation from looking at power curves for chi-square tests on these dice: "For a d6, I wouldn't want to use any less than n = 100 as a minimum (and ideally something like n = 500 if you're serious about it). For a d20, n = 500 would be a useful minimum (and at least several thousand to find reasonably small variations)."

Mark Fickett Art: Dice Roller



Coup de Grâce

I get irritated by how people routinely mispronounce the phrase "coup de grâce". Most Americans, and most gamers to my knowledge pronounce it incorrectly. In short: the final "e" is silent, but not the "c" before it. In fact, here's the (incorrect) listing printed in the 3E D&D Player's Handbook (p. 276, © 2000):

Again, check out that supposed pronunciation:

I don't know how this could have ever gotten started, because it doesn't match any dictionary, either English or French. Some references, in each case pronouncing the final "s" sound:
  • Dictionary.com, including entries from the Random House Dictionary and others -- including an audio link at the top.
  • Wiktionary.org: "Some English speakers, aware that some final consonants are dropped in French, overcompensate by dropping the final /s/ sound in grâce, making this sound like French coup de gras ('strike of grease'). This mispronunciation is quickly becoming ubiquitous and is being popularized by the media (e.g., it occurs twice in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill Volume 2)." Also includes an audio link.
  • Cambridge English Dictionary, with audio link.
  • Oxford Dictionary, with audio link.
  • Collins English Dictionary.
  • Merriam-Webster.
  • Google Translate, with audio link.
Let's get literate, people!


Geomorphs and Giants

Ever notice how the dungeon designs for Gygax's Against the Giants adventure series (modules G1-3) respectively match the same styles as in his Dungeon Geomorphs products?

Geomorphs and giants dungeon styles


Blade of Vengeance, Part 5

A few posts ago, a commenter asked for a character sheet of Erestylle of Dorneryll, the solo character in Jim Bambra's D&D Module O2, Blade of Vengeance. So this week we take a break and look at our protagonist as shown in the module:


Of course, this was published to support the Moldvay/Cook B/X - Mentzer Basic line, in which race & class were collapsed to a single state for non-humans, the character is listed as simply a 7th-level Elf (3 less than the maximum allowed for elves in those rules). Since we picked up this module and started play extemporaneously, with no preparation on my part at all, I've been using the stats as presented -- except under Original D&D rules to declare that Erystelle counts as a 4th-level fighter (maximum else in OD&D), and 7th-level magic-user (one less than maximum). Also we've retroactively defined Erystelle's two wardogs to be bobcats instead (with the same 2 hit dice, single 1d6 attack, and +2 to surprise if alone or with Erystelle in wooded terrain; see Lynx, Giant). Spells and equipment were all kept the same.

Now, in retrospect Erystelle's listed 40 hit points don't make sense for that level as an OD&D character (as I interpret the rules for multiclassing; see OED House Rules). Even in the Moldvay/Mentzer rules, Erystelle's hit points are clearly inflated; maximum possible would be 7d6 + 7 for Constitution = 7×6 + 7 = 49, so the hit points shown are well above average, 40/49 = 82% the possible maximum. In OD&D, assuming that hit points for multiclassing do not sum, the maximum for a 4th-level fighter is 4d8 + 4 = 36 or a 7th-level wizard 7d4 + 7 = 35. Taking a similar 82% of either of those numbers gives a likely hit point total of just 30 for proper OD&D play. But I'm not going to reduce that in the middle of play, so Erystelle for the moment retains the full 40 hit points as shown here (minus various scrapes, burns, collisions, falls, crushing impacts, and blood-sucking that has occurred along the way so far).

Note that as usual all of my OD&D monster hit dice and attacks are simply rolled with d6's, which proportionally reduces the threat from those monsters, so Erystelle has a bit of an extra edge in this particular run-through of the Blade of Vengeance.


Theater Thesis

I say the following all the time, but to my amazement a search fails to find it in any previous post on this blog, so here it is:

D&D is to video games as live theater is to movies.

In both pairs, the former is technologically simpler, and has the historical precedent. The latter is more technically demanding, and allows a mass-produced and mass-replicated experience, and in so doing creates a far more lucrative business model. But the former provides a live activity, and interaction between people in the performance space, and thus the potential for a more intimate, visceral, intense, one-of-a-kind experience.

In each case, professionals will work regularly in the latter activity for a livelihood; but generally engage in the former when given the opportunity for greater personal expression and reward. Great actors work in movies but take off to live Broadway when they get a chance. Likewise, in my experience, most professional video game developers work on the digital form during the day job, but in off-hours they play live D&D (or other RPGs) as the more fulfilling "true essence" of the form.


Blade of Vengeance, Part 4

Days 10-13:
  • Erystelle and companion creatures return to the ruined human village of Scrubton, then take the track southwest. Fight a pair of giant ferrets along the way; at this point E. fixes on the strategy of casting sleep on these lesser creatures and putting them to the sword as soon as possible.
  • Reaches a high, open hillside in the forest which allows survey of the forest and river for leagues distance. Spots titanic twin pillars to the north; and also a huge dragon flying about a league away. Hastens back into the woods for cover and makes camp. Overnight fends off 3 wild boars.
  • Travels some 3 leagues north through the trackless forest and reaches the river, where an attack by 5 giant flies occurs. Camps out and rests before assaulting the pillars, which glow with a supernatural light through the trees at night.
  • In the morning, crosses the river by swimming and assisted by a magic web cast between trees from back to bank. Travels a league northwest to the area of the pillars; finds it entirely circled by thorny brambles which twist and thrash out when a torch is brought near them. Wizard eye scans the inner area but finds no secret paths. E. begins hacking against the brambles by sword, and manages to cut through, but not without the brambles striking back and drawing blood. E. correctly guesses that the brambles might grow back quickly, and calls the animal companions through the cut passage.
  • The existing pillars are only part of what once stood here; the upper halves have been shattered and lie in rubble. The surface are covered in ivory with engravings of celestial bodies; stars and moons and comets. A small dirty pool lies between them with weeds and bugs. E. casts read magic on the glyphs and determines that they are symbols of magical navigation, but to where one cannot say. Invokes the magic rhyme from the shargugh (“Before me lies the silver moon...”, etc.) but nothing happens. Rests for the day by the pillars and fends off an attack by stirges. Falls asleep in the afternoon.
  • Awaken at night and the place is transformed: although the prior night was a quarter waxing, the moon shines full overhead. The pillars pulse with magical power. The pool is a bright crystal pond, reflecting the moon. The bramble barrier is gone. The weeds are now bright shining flowers, ever petal casting a glittering, twinkling light. E. says the magic words; nothing happens. Inspects the burned page from the hermit. Stands in the pond and says the rhyme; nothing happens. Kneels and speaks; nothing. Lies prostrate and speaks; nothing. Holds a shining flower in the hand and speaks; nothing. Touches the pillars and speaks; nothing. Frustrating all possibilities, takes the opportunity to avoid the brambles and retreats to the riverside and weeps and curses.
  • Decides to follow the river south; travels 4 leagues and gets attacked by more giant flies. Makes camp.
  • Travels further south, fending off a pack of 5 wolves with the usual sleep spell. A league later finds a bridge over the river with a rustic nearby domicile. Hails the woman with a wolf on the porch. A man joins her and casts detect evil on Erystelle for safety. E. shows the tale of woe, and oncoming monsters and destruction while the couple listens silently.
  • As E. speak, the wolf growls and turns; the place is under attack by a huge troll and a score of gnolls! As they rush through the couple's orchard, E. casts web and manages to catch the troll and a pair of gnolls (fails save; and fails attack check to break out). The man and woman cast hold person spells, paralyzing a half-dozen gnolls in place. As the gnolls approack to within melee distance, the woman casts animal growth on the wolf, horse, and bobcats, and they each swell to giant-sized (double hits and damage). E. casts magic missile and strikes 4 of the gnolls. The animals dive among them, tearing limbs and bodies in pieces. A few run but get cut down before they can escape. E. turns to the struggling troll and blasts it with a lightning bolt, then hacks at it by sword. The man appears with a lit torch and sets the web and troll pieces on fire, and they also throw the paralyzed gnolls into the flame like cordwood.
  • Ragnal and Rhonda Redleaf are immensely grateful, cast healing spells on Erystelle and the injured bobcat, and turn over their entire supply of healing herbs to E. in gratitude. Asking for advice or information, the pair suggest that E. visit an old ent that lives nearby and ask him. For now however, E. stays the night and sleeps in a bed for the first time in many days, with the animals all sleeping peacefully nearby. However, all are aware that the monster depradations seem to be getting worse.
  • (DM's note: I decide that the module-indicated 3 wandering monster checks per day is likely excessive. Will be switching back to core OD&D rule of 1 check per day at 2-in-6 in the woods.)


Tolkien's Maps

Hopefully you've seen these graph-paper maps and other illustrations used by J.R.R. Tolkien to plan out Middle Earth, at Wired:


Blade of Vengeance, Part 3

Days 4-9:
  • Erystelle has an enormous breakfast in the hobbit village of Oakendale, and then leaves on the trail north. 
  • Late in the afternoon, E. comes to a bridge crossing a river; buzzing around the bridge are 4 giant flies that wing to the attack with clashing mandibles. E. cuts them down with swordplay and the help of the horse and bobcat companions. After the bridge the is a 4-way intersection; remembering great uncle Druider's directions, E. turns northeast and then makes camp.
  • Overnight E. is woken by a wail from the bobcats; a group of 5 giant ferrets have infiltrated te camp, about to attack the sleeping Erystelle, while other try to make off with food and saddlebags. E. jumps up and fends them off with more expert swordplay. However, with the night's sleep interrupted, E. cannot regain spells in the morning.
  • A league further up the trail, E. finds the hermit's cave, but it has been invaded, its contents burned and smoking. Looking through the remnants, E. finds a half-charred book with the legend of Galannor Nightflame (familiar from great uncle's story), and a final, half-burned page (see below). E. notices that the last part aligns with the shargugh's rhyme; likely the first part is an accompanying place or ceremony? E. reflects on any memory of "celestial pillars" but cannot recall any. Spends an hour searching and calling around the cave for the hermit but finds no trace -- other than obvious booted tracks of armed humanoids traveling northeast.
  • Travels another league northeast and hears shouting in goblinoid. Casting wizard eye, spies on the camp ahead; an ogre roar at a score of cowering hobgoblins. E. casts invisibility and creeps to where they can be heard. A captive has escaped and the hobgoblins are receiving due punishment. E. returns to the hermit's cave and spends another hour searching but finds nothing. Nearing the end of the day, E. rides south a league and makes camp.
  • Overnight, another pack of the many giant ferrets in the area attacks. E. wins again, but again cannot recover any spells in the morning.
  • Returning to the 4-way intersection north of the river bridge; an armed centaur blocks the path and declares that none may pass without accepting the challenge of a joust (without magic, of course). E. asks: "Have you seen the hermit?" The centaur: "I no nothing of any hermit." E.: "Then you are no use to me!" and lets loose with a lightning bolt. The centaur dodges aside, only partly scorched, and makes a ferocious charge, which E. barely turns by dint of magic armor. E. attacks with sword but fumbles (natural 1 & failed save) -- slips off out of the saddle and is stunned! Cursing at the evils of magic, the centaur jumps repeatedly on E.'s head seeking to stave it in -- one blow is critical for triple damage. But E.'s animal companions fend it off, and when Erystelle rises again, the bobcats pull down the centaur's hind section and E. finishes it by sword.
  • Amazed and bearing many injuries, E. returns to the hermit's cave seeking shelter to rest and recover for a few days if need be; horribly finds the field and the nearby gardens entirely scorched down to the smoking soil, trees surrounding the clearing burned to cinders. Retreats a league into the trackless woods and finds fallen trees for shelter, as the group tries to lick its wounds. Attacked by stirges. Overnight a grizzly bear stumbles into the camp and the group attack and kill it (no spells again). Try to rest the next day and the bear's mate now stumbles into the camp; this time E. stays dozing while the animals chase it off. Finally recovers spells and hit points by resting another night.
  • Departing, E. returns to the 4-way path and turns north. A league north the path forks again, north and northwest; takes the northwest branch. Two leagues northwest, then 2 leagues north, and they find the human village of Scrubton, entirely burned to ash cinders. The people nothing but charred skeletons. How long? At least a few weeks gone. E. tries to search the ashes for clues or books, but finds nothing.
  • Near the end of the day, they travel a league north of the burned village. Here the trees begin to thin out and the land rises into hills northward; thick coils of mist spill out of the hills and the group camps near the edge of the trees. In the morning the foggy mist does not rise; vision is limited and enemies could be near without knowing. E. returns south and takes a northeast trail out of the village; but again the tries thin out and the misty hills present themselves. A league further into the hills and 5 hobgoblins appear and attack. One slips, but another scores a critical hit; the roll 89%, indicating a serious abdominal injury that will reduce carrying capacity and movement and would not heal naturally. E. casts sleep on the hobgoblins and then pulls out the last potion of healing and drinks it so as to cure the ailment. 
  • Inferring that the misty hills are teeming and blocked by armed hobgoblins, Erystelle retreats back west and south, finally making camp some three leagues south of the ruined village of Scrubton. Frustrated and feeling alone, E. hopes to reflect and meditate on some solution by morning. 
Burned page
The burned page.


Ghouls Through Literature

Of course, there's more than just the holiday for National Cat Day this week; there's also a little thing called Halloween. In view of that, let's talk about Ghouls (one of the main archetypal Halloween monsters, often along with Ghosts and Goblins).

I previously outlined the appearance of Ghouls in different editions of D&D (link). To be clear, Ghouls are definitely a "proud nail" monster for me, and I'm continually troubled by them. I'm bothered by how askew they are from any preceding fictional examples. I'm troubled that they got their paralyzing attacks basically due to the accident of being in the same paragraph as Wights (with their LOTR-style freezing touch) in Chainmail. I'm irritated that their 3 paralyzing attacks make them far too dangerous at the levels they usually show up (similar to the "too many attacks" note from cats last week). I'm even tweaked by the fact that all the other undead got a 1-HD bump up from OD&D to AD&D, but not ghouls. They have an immensely clunky mechanic when translated to mass warfare, as in Book of War. Certainly I run them with just the standard 1 attack as in OD&D; I'm constantly on the cusp of rewriting a bunch of other details for them, and then decide not too. So without further ado, a document I've been compiling for a few years now; a look at the literary traditions of ghouls.


Ghouls are inspired by the Arabic ghul (1001 Nights), a demonic creature that inhabits graveyards, consumes children, and shape-changes into either Hyena or the last corpse they consumed. They are linguistically related to the Gallu (Mesopotamian demon) and Algol (“the demon” star). 


Ghouls are a near-human race living underground with rubbery and hairless bodies, canine faces (and howls), hooved feet, forward-slumping posture, and often greenish, diseased-seeming pallor (esp. among older ones). They are light-sensitive and have their own gibbering language. There are strong suggestions that humans transform into ghouls and vice-versa (possibly by interbreeding with ghouls, swaps at birth, training, disease, and/or cannibalism – see Kuru disease *). They eat the corpses of people and also their own wounded in battle. (Ghasts are a race that live near ghouls, perhaps more bestial, larger, and with kangaroo-like hind legs.) They are intelligent enough to organize in packs, open doors, sneak around guards, and use simple tools (a gravestone as a lever, etc.)

The Lovecraftian tradition does not have the quick shape-changing of the Arabic ghul, but they maintain a kind of relation in transforming to a creature with dog/hyena-like features. Perhaps we can conclude abilities such as (a) fast overland sprint/loping movement from hooved feet, (b) a long-term transformative disease from those they injure but do not consume/kill, and (c) behavior of slaying and consuming injured foes and allies alike (no recovery possible). Possibly there are special sorcerer ghouls with all the powers of Arabic transformation (via polymorph or doppelganger-like ability; possibly even doppelganger leaders themselves). Consider also a dead sorcerer who regains flesh and mobility if a jeweled medallion is removed, as in the story “The Hound”. Ghasts can have more hit dice and leaping ability. 

* Kuru: “The symptoms of Kuru are broken down into three specific stages. The first, ambulant stage, exhibits unsteady stance and gait, decreased muscle control, tremors, deterioration of speech and dysarthria (slurred speech). In the second stage, sedentary stage, the patient is incapable of walking without support, suffers ataxia (loss of muscle coordination) and severe tremors. Furthermore, the victim is emotionally unstable, depressed, yet having uncontrolled sporadic laughter. Interestingly, the tendon reflexes are still normal at this point. In the final, terminal stage, the patient is incapable of sitting without support, suffers severe ataxia (no muscle coordination), is unable to speak, is incontinent (unable to restrain natural discharges/evacuations of urine or feces), has dysphagia (difficulty swallowing), is unresponsive to their surroundings, and acquires ulcerations (sores with pus and necrosis). An infected person usually dies within 3 months to 2 years after the first symptoms, often because of pneumonia or pressure sores infection.” (Note uncontrollable laughter = Hyena-like?) 


Conan encounters ghouls once in the novel “Hour of the Dragon” (p. 126), and they are basically identical to the Lovecraftian type. (Note that Howard worked in the Lovecraft circle, and wrote several Cthulhu stories himself.) They are strong – a single one contends reasonably with Conan himself (arguing for 3HD in AD&D)? OD&D Sup-IV says for the Conan stories, “GHOULS OF YANAIDAR: As Ghouls of D&D, but double the number usually appearing.” See end of the story “The Flame Knife”, adapted by de Camp from earlier Howard, wherein a hidden fortress is in the final scene overrun by a seemingly endless horde of ghouls from below the earth.


Note that in Night of the Living Dead, the newscaster near the end repeatedly refers to the monsters as “ghouls” (as opposed to what they were popularly called afterward, “zombies”). Of course, D&D ghouls look very much like these monsters (feasting on the dead, spreading the disease to victims, etc.) Possibly interpret bite-paralysis as the fever-sickness (2nd save?) which transforms people to ghouls.

Further Thoughts

One of my mental blocks with both the Romerian and Gygaxian ghoul is how the supposed pandemic spread doesn't seem to make sense; if ghouls entire raison d'être is the consumption of dead bodies, then that seems to directly contradict the possibility of anything physically remaining of their victims to possibly arise as new ghouls.

Consider making the ghoul more in line with Lovecraft/Romero, et. al., in that they transform not those who are killed (and likely eaten), but those who are bitten (paralyzed) and actually escape the initial encounter. One problem with this is that in the HPL/Romero vein, no escape is possible – the bitten/infected person is always unquestionably doomed; which clashes with the D&D principle of everyone getting a save, and always having a fighting chance. Perhaps we rectify this by converting or adding to the save vs. paralysis to a secret save vs. infection, else transformation into a ghoul occurs over 1-6 days (perhaps paralysis is just the first sign of the "fever sickness" in Romero). But this still doesn't solve the contradiction to any possible pandemic; it seems almost as unlikely to survive a ghoul attack, and therefore a negligible number of infections would occur.

So for D&D purposes it does seem like the transform on death (if not consumed?) is the most playable; it can be an unavoidable doom without seeming to be unfair to the player (the PC having lost the chance to fight on, by virtue of already being dead). It is also more synchronized with other undead types (who transform victims after death from energy level drain). Instead, perhaps some other means of spreading the infection can be found: supernatural global curse, alien radiation, gas emitted by dead bodies, etc. This could be added acceptably without changing the D&D-type ghoul.



Blade of Vengeance, Part 2

Days 1-3:
  • Erystelle rides a day northwest to the home of E.'s great-uncle, the elven smith Druinder. Along the way runs into 4 stirges who partly suck blood from E., Stormbrow, and Bob. E. finishes the bloated last one by sword and it explodes in a splash of blood.
  • Joins Druinder his home for the evening, who takes the terrible news, suspects a red dragon in the crime, and then relates the legend of Galannor Nightflame (see below). In the morning, gives E. his ring of protection and says, "The future of the Emerlas  rests with you, you must restore Galannor to the world in order to defeat the dragon and avenge your family, Without Galannor's aid we are doomed." Gives directions to a wise human hermit; ride a day east to Oakendale, and then a day north to the hermit's cave. 
  • Nearing Oakendale, a tiny wild man jumps on Stormbrow, lifts the magic ring and disappears, laughing maniacally.
  • At the end of the day, Oakendale is a well-maintained hobbit village. The tavern owner Bella brings in E. and frets greatly over the story, plying E. with more food than can be eaten by non-hobbits. Also places a plate of food out on the ground by the door. Inquiring, Bella mentions a village "shargugh", a magical wild creature who plays tricks but also blesses the village and performs odd chores. E. follows up with the village elder Wally Gutzon, who gives directions to the hill where the shargugh lives, but cautions to take gifts and not to harm him.
  • Still nursing wounds, Erystelle gets up to find the shargugh. E. first stops by the village militia house to warn them of evil afoot and to be on guard; then buys a small silver necklace from the general store keeper. E. then travels a league by trail and another league into the untracked woods to find the shargugh, bringing food, beer, and the necklace. The shargugh pops up and tells several doom-filled rhymes, laughing manically -- then messily devours the food and beer and ties the necklace in his beard, dancing and laughing, disappearing down a tree stump. He returns with Druider's ring and also a strange brass lamp, empty of oil. E. asks, "Are you mad?"; the shargugh says, "A madman would say 'no', so... 'no'". 
  • E. picks up the lamp and ring and ties them to the horse. Turning, the shargugh looks serious for the first time and says to mark well the following words: "Before me lies the silver moon/ And stars encircle my brow/ Let the hidden way be open soon/ Galannor Nightflame hear me now!", then runs off.
  • E. works returns through the dense woods, back towards the hobbit village. A raven is perched on a branch over the trail before the village. Erystelle says, "Raven, speak!". At which point the raven cries: "Seek the hooded one in the cave of blue!", then takes off and flies to the west. Erystelle and companions bed down for a second night in the welcoming hobbit tavern. 


Cat Stats

There's a big holiday coming up next week: National Cat Day, October 29. I'm a big cat person, and so are many famous writers: like H.P. Lovecraft and that dude who worked on the Reichenau Primer. Here are the stats for different cats in AD&D:

Values for average weight are taken from bigcats.com (with those for the prehistoric sabre-tooth and spotted lion/cave lion from Wikipedia articles). All of the HD 3+ types would count as "big cats", various species of lynx would be "medium cats", and below that are the "small cats". What most of us call the cougar is given in the MM as the mountain lion (*).

The primary trope that Gygax used when sketching out all of the different cats is to give them 3 basic attacks (claw/claw/bite), and another 2 rake attacks (with hind legs) if the initial 2 claw attacks are both successful. This first appeared in the context of OD&D Supplement-I (p. 18), where most of the original monsters were switched from one attack each (1d6 damage) to having a multitude of attacks at different die values. I tend to think that this was greatly overdone, and for my OD&D games I give about half as many attacks as shown there. (e.g.: Horses and bulls are all given 2 or more attacks, and while I've been kicked and run over by steers on a number of occasions, I've never been hit by more than one hoof at a time.) Moreover, this pattern gets really silly trying to maintain it at the lower levels, rolling lots and lots of attacks for negligible damage on the order of 1-2 points each or something (e.g.: Cheetahs are given damage 1-2/1-2/2-8 and 1-2/1-2; why not just make 2 total attacks at damage 1d12 and 1d4 or the like, and save over half the attack dice rolls?) Perhaps if I was writing the big cats from scratch I'd give them 2 attacks, with both successful meaning the cat was latched on -- no escape unless the cat is killed or breaks morale, and following 2 attacks per round at +2 hit and damage (and maybe some extra hiding bonus).

The domestic cat from Monster Manual 2 is borderline infamous for being a possible NPC and PC-killer at 1st level. They are weirdly given 1-5 hit points (on a normally 8-sided hit die; in the chart above I've abbreviated this as about 1/2 a hit die, **). They get 3 total attacks (damage 1-2/1/1-2) instead of the possible 5 attacks everything else gets, but in sum this is still more hit points than a serf or starting wizard is likely to have. I would argue that the superfluity of attacks by all the other cats may be equally ridiculous; it's just that our direct experience with domestic cats highlights the issue at that level.

The other thing that's strange is the "Giant Lynx" from the original Monster Manual. It's given as being intelligent and having its own language. The thing that I find particularly hard to parse is that normal lynxes (along with related bobcats, fisher cats, golden cats, and ocelots) weigh on the order of 20-50 pounds, and looking at the chart above, the spot we should place these real-world types would clearly be at the HD 2 level (above small wild cats and below cheetahs) -- the same as that given for the "giant lynx". So what exactly did Gygax mean, or what did he take inspiration from, for this "giant" lynx which is actually the same size as a real-world lynx?

Finally, you can see that average weights and given Hit Dice make a nice power curve progression, with a 97% coefficient of determination, topping out at about 1 HD per 100 pounds:

Edit: A table of proposed cat stats for the OED house rules (closer to original OD&D style):


Blade of Vengeance, Part 1

An attempt at minimalist game-blogging. Isabelle requested a solo adventure, and with no preparation I pulled out Dungeon Module O2, Blade of Vengeance, by Jim Bambra. This may go best if you can read along in your own copy of the adventure.

The setting: Main character is Erystelle, a near-max-level elf; using OD&D rules with my OED adjustments as usual, we'll say the PC is Ftr4/Wiz7. Has a warhorse named Stormbrow and two trained bobcats, Bob and Cat (originally wardogs, Eslin and Tarcil).
  • Erystelle returns home after years away adventuring to a scene of utmost horror; flame and smoke rising in the distance from the ancient family tree of Dorneryll. E. rides forward posthaste.
  • Encounters 4 hobgoblins on the approach trail, casts sleep on them, disposes of the bodies in underbrush.  
  • Sees 2 ogres by the bridge to the family camp. Casts magic missile and then charges across the bridge into melee. Is soundly smacked around (over half health gone) but defeats the ogres.
  • Enters the smoke-filled clearing and runs into a force of hobgoblins and dire-wolf mounted goblins. Casts lightning bolt, felling half, and the other half scatter. E. withdraws back to the bridge.
  • Casts wizard eye and scouts the blazing tree; sees many monsters fallen, but also the entirety of her extended family beaten, burned, clawed, and crushed to death. An ogre-sized hobgoblin chief and bodyguards stand with the magic weapons of E.'s father and mother. Looks at a bloody parchment, tosses it to the ground, and walks off.
  • E. casts invisibility and heads forth in person, confirms extended family all dead, picks up the blood-soaked letter (see below). Follows the hobgoblins to the nearby stables where they meet more hobgoblins and mount horses with bulging saddlebags. They ride northeast.
  • E. follows northeast; spots E's two brothers dead along the outer trail. Reaches the edge of a river where the trail peters out on hard rocks. Gets attacked by a giant flying draco lizard and puts it down. Returns to the family tree to give last rites, camp, and swear dire vengeance. 

Blood-stained letter
The bloody letter.


I'm in DCC

So at the start of September I started playing in a friend's Dungeon Crawl Classics game (exploring the Stonehell Dungeon) over in Williamsburg every other week or so. It's been pretty awesome! Most of the players are a lot younger than myself, and they've been nothing but inviting and totally cool. It's great to kick back and "just" be a player for a change, although it's balanced by the mix of anxiety and terror that you don't get quite the same as DM. On the other hand, my knowledge of old-school tropes sometimes comes off as almost uncanny foresight into what's about to happen, where treasure probably is, etc.

I think it was the second session where I was leafing through the enormous tome that is the DCC rulebook. There's an extensive recreation/love letter to the "Appendix N" literature list -- apparently Joseph Goodman actually read every single title mentioned there in advance of creating the game. Then this is followed by an "Appendix O" of online resources and blogs -- and I was pleasantly surprised and stunned to see that this very blog, Delta's D&D Hotspot, is included in that listing, as recommended reading.

Big thanks to Joseph Goodman and everyone at Goodman Games for the shout-out. We've been enjoying your excellent work!


D is for Demon

Consider AD&D DMG Appendix D (p. 194-5): "Random Generation of Creatures from the Lower Planes", that is, Demons, Devils, and Daemons. The esteemed Mr. Russell Flowers made a web generator to instantly create these when you need it. I really love this tool, especially in the case of the Chaotic demon types, where you never need have two be exactly the same. That's really a legitimately good use of tablature, maintains the mystery of not knowing the whole game for players, and handles the occasional cry of "every monster should be special" with efficiency and elegance. Thanks to Russell for automating it!


Shields & Stuff

Shields, Cavalry, and Mass Combat

Shields aren't highly valued in the D&D rule system, and they never have been. Not the first time that's been said. Start by looking at the original Chainmail mass combat table for missile fire (p. 11):

Ok, so shields give some kind of benefit there -- men with shields (or "1/2 armor"; think chain mail) reduce hits by about 1 for similar dice rolls. But let's consider a historical case like the Battle of Hastings (Wikipedia):
The battle opened with the Norman archers shooting uphill at the English shield wall, to little effect. The uphill angle meant that the arrows either bounced off the shields of the English or overshot their targets and flew over the top of the hill... After the attack from the archers, William sent the spearmen forward to attack the English. They were met with a barrage of missiles, not arrows but spears, axes and stones. The infantry was unable to force openings in the shield wall, and the cavalry advanced in support. The cavalry also failed to make headway, and a general retreat began...

This is an example of a "shield wall" which seems to make the defenders effectively immune to missile attacks (and others), as long as they maintain it. But that's a big difference from the one-hit reduction granted in Chainmail. Furthermore, Chainmail has no "shield wall" rule; it never did, and neither did D&D in any classic form. So this action is completely non-simulatable in any version of the game. Worse, consider the switch to the Man-to-Man rules:

That's the start of the Chainmail Man-to-Man missile fire table where, at the top of the table, armor class 1 = none, 2 = leather or padded, 3 = shield only. Note that in most of the cases there is absolutely no benefit given to either the shield or leather/padded armor! (Almost all of the target numbers are the same.) Of course, the D&D d20-based system gives a fixed 1-in-20 benefit for a shield; and AD&D DMG p. 28 suggests the option of changing this to +2 for large shields vs. small missiles, not that I've seen anyone ever use that. In any case: a very small, almost negligible benefit, and not at all representative of "shield wall" type immunity. (Contrast with EGG's almost fetishistic gauntlet of bonuses given to Swiss pikes.)

Let me also comment on cavalry in the system here. In the Chainmail table, no distinction is made to targets of missile fire that are horsed or on foot (see above). Presumably, a hit in any case wipes out one figure, whether mounted or not. But if we switch to EGG's later mass-combat revision of Swords & Spells, we see that he adds the entirety of the mounts hit dice as a benefit to cavalry units (p. 17):

Note the line, "Mounted troops include the hit points of their mounts." So instead of just killing the man riding the horse, you now have to deplete the entire sum of the hit points of horse & rider -- tripling or quadrupling the number hits that a figure takes from attacks before being eliminated (as compared to Chainmail)! That's a tremendous benefit, and later rules like Battlesystem basically carried on that tradition (or at least averaged them in the 1989 revision).

If I watch a Western movie with my father, who's worked on horses et. al. as a large-animal veterinarian for a half-century and counting, then he'll usually say, "Those guys should skip shooting at the riders and just shoot at the horses instead, because one bullet to the leg and they're done for". So at least in one expert's opinion, men on horses would have additional vulnerabilities to missile fire, not added endurance; and likewise when we look at famous historical cases like the Battle of Agincourt or Crécy, we see cases where English longbows were devastating to massed cavalry. But  it's practically impossible to simulate that action in the D&D system from Swords & Spells or later, because the endurance of cavalry is made to be several multiples greater than that of a man on foot.

So the end result of this is that whereas, based on historical sources, we might expect a dominance diagram of the basic unit types to look like this (infantry beats archers via use of shields, archers beat cavalry by shooting either riders or horses, and cavalry beat infantry by charging through shields):

... In D&D the situation, at least when you look at a cost-benefit analysis, looks exactly the reverse (infantry beats cavalry simply because they're so cheap and numerous, cavalry beats archers due to endurance multiplication, and archers beat infantry because the latter have negligible defense from shields):

And there's kind of no way I can see to wrestle this back around without entirely overhauling practically all of the guts of the D&D core system. Something we just kind of have to accept and live with if we take the simple D&D combat system as the basis for our games.


Lou Zocchi at Gen Con 2015

A video from Lou Zocchi from Gen Con this past weekend:

(Tip to E. Gygax Jr. for posting this on Facebook.)


Alternate Turn Undead Mechanics

I got a great question from commentator Nathan Jennings the other day (in the "Best Combat Algorithm" thread; link). Definitely not something I'd considered before, so it intrigued me. He wrote:
Question (perhaps worthy of a blog post?): I know you don't like clerics. But, for the sake of a nice reader like me, can you imagine how the turn-undead mechanic could be cleaned up?
Let's look quickly at the Turn Undead table in OD&D Vol-1:

Notice that the places where the results are numerical are very narrow; just 3 cells long/wide. These values can be modeled with a table-free mechanic of rolling 2d6 + 2 × (Cleric level − Undead hit dice), needing a total of 9+ for success. (In some printings of OD&D skeletons are shown as 1/2 HD [treat as 0], with zombies 1 HD, then ghouls 2 HD, etc., adding 1 for each type.) If we extrapolate this, then the "T" values in the table effectively get replaced by 5's and 3's, easy but not automatic success, and when the roll is automatic then you get "D" results.

If I used clerics in my games, then I might consider taking out the unnecessary multiplier of "2" throughout this formula, and simply roll 1d6 + Clr level − Undead HD. Success, as usual for 1d6 rolls, is 2-in-6; that is, a total of 5+ indicates success. Impossible results are "N" and automatic results give the "D".

But here, let me meta-turn Clerics themselves: I get "D" and the problem disappears. :-)

I love questions like that; thanks, Nathan!


Completed X Series

I finally completed my collection of the X-series modules for the D&D game (at least, the part of the series that I care about). Sweet!


Grimm Legacies

A nice review of various recent books considering the legacy and evolution of the original Grimm Brothers books of fairy tales. I particularly like the call for a "tone licked clean", especially in the context of an Original D&D style game, where the raw material is very curt, and the work is given life through live play and story-telling. (Thanks to Jonathan Scott Miller for the link.)

Rescuing Wonderful Shivery Tales



SFKH Scenario Table

One weakness of the Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks game is that it comes with a very small number of set scenario games (4), with no guidance as to how to go about setting up or balancing new games. I've tried to partly address this with point-value costs for the different ships in the game (link). Here's another step in that direction: a short table for random scenarios.

First decide which player has UPF ships, and which Sathar (the Sathar has more limited strategic options; so either dice or give UPF to the less-experienced player). Then players privately buy their fleets by point values -- use 6 points for small game, 12 points for a medium game, or 24 points for a large game. Finally, roll d10 and consult the following table for scenario setup. (Note that simpler scenarios appear first; you may want to play them in order once before using the random method).

Star Frontiers Knight Hawks Scenario Table

1-2: Empty Space
3-4: Rocky Planet
5-6: Space Station
7-8: Gas Giant
9-0: Black Hole

Empty Space

Choose who is the attacker by random method. This player must place ships on the near board edge and make the first move; maximum initial speed is 10. Victory goes to whichever player is last with ships on the board.

Rocky Planet

The UPF player sets a rocky planet (1½" diameter model) at least 12" away from any board edge. Ship are set up the same as "Empty Space" above. Ships moving within 1" of the planet get an extra 60° turn towards the planet at the point of their closest passing. A ship can enter orbit by reducing speed to ½ within 1" of the planet; thereafter the ship orbits at ½" per turn, and can pivot freely. Ships moving directly into the planet at speed are destroyed. Victory goes to whichever player is last with ships on the board.

Space Station

The UPF player sets a rocky planet (1½" diameter model or roughly so) at least 12" away from any board edge, along with an orbiting Armed Station. Sathar ships are the attackers, and set up first on one board edge; then UPF ships may be set up anywhere at least 12" away from any board edge. Movement of ships and orbiting station around the planet is as per the prior scenario. Once one player has no ships remaining on the board, add the point value for all enemy destroyed ships (the Armed Station is valued at 6 points for this purpose). Victory goes to whichever player destroyed the greater value of enemy ships.

Armed Station: HP 80, ADF 0, MR 0; Weapons LB, RB (×6); Defenses RH, MS (×2), ICM (×6).

Gas Giant

The UPF player sets a gas giant planet (12" diameter model or roughly so) in the center of the play area. Ship are set up the same as "Empty Space" above. Any ship moving with 3" of the gas giant can take an extra 60° turn towards the planet at the point of their closest passing. Ships may reduce speed to 1 and enter orbit at any location on the table, moving at a speed of 1" each turn at a constant distance from the planet. Victory goes to whichever player is last with ships on the board.

Black Hole

The UPF player sets a small black hole (1" diameter model or roughly so) in the center of the play area. Ship are set up the same as "Empty Space" above. All ships on the board must maintain a minimum speed or are presumed to fall uncontrollably into the black hole and be destroyed; see the following table. The indicated speed is also the speed for orbital insertion; ships at this speed can be treated as in orbit and pivot freely. Ships must have a higher speed than listed to increase distance from the black hole. Ships orbiting within 3" of the black hole may be placed at any location and orientation within 3" of the black hole on their turn (this represents multiple, unpredictable orbits in a single turn). Ships ending a turn pointed directly at the black hole fall in and are destroyed. Victory goes to whichever player is last with ships on the board.


Weekend Warrior: SF Knight Hawks

Game 2 of a pair of Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks battles with my friend John S. Having gotten an idea of the mechanics in Game 1 (where I handily fended off his 3 Assault Scouts), John went in the other direction this time. In particular, he took note of the SFKH rule that a ship with speed zero (0) can pivot to any desired facing within a turn, irrespective of MR (maneuver rating). This makes for a pretty attractive strategy of taking a single, slow, high-value capital ship and letting it be a stationary, rotating gun platform (even though in other situations the big slow ships are a bit devalued). So giving a budget value of 6 mega-credits to both sides to buy ships, this was exactly enough for John to purchase the big Sathar Heavy Cruiser, while I picked a UPF Assault Scout and Destroyer in response (price 2 and 4 respectively). From John's perspective, the added value was that he wouldn't have to deal with momentum and turning issues so much.

Turn 1-2 --  John starts in the center of his side with a speed of 3. While seemingly minimal, this itself was nearly a misstep, as the big Heavy Cruiser only has an ADF of 1, so it's going to take 3 turns to come to a stop and pivot at-will. At the end of turn 2, I've got my ships positioned together for an attack run from the left side (and I like having my bigger ship ahead to attract and shield any weapons fire).

Turn 3-4 --  I make my close-up attack run, and the dice go very well for me. In particular, I get tremendously lucky with a nuclear torpedo sneaking in through his defensive ICMs and the 4d10 damage dice come up: 10, 9, 9, and 7 -- so there goes 35 of his initial 80 hull points. John targets all his weapons at my scout, looking to score the first casualty; I take evasive maneuvers to get away from his torpedo-fire. However, the zig-zag flight path doesn't allow me to get much distance from the cruiser, so on the next turn John comes to a stop, lines up on my scout, and blasts it out of existence with laser-fire. Meanwhile, my destroyer has come back around for some long-range cannon fire (which misses).

Turn 5-6 --  My destroyer makes another strafing attack, as we trade rocket and laser fire. The cruiser pivots after each of my attacks to shoot with its forward-firing cannon and sequence of 3 laser batteries. At the start of this turn sequence we're about even on hull points, with 40 each; but the fact that he's getting more cannon shots lined up is a bad deal for me. (Generally I get 1 or 2 laser attacks on my turns, versus 4 on his.) Still, I get some very lucky hit rolls and both of our hull points tick down together into the single digits. At this point I'm out of rockets and torpedoes, but the opponent is not.

Turn 7 --  Realizing that I can't afford to give him free cannon-shots while I'm trying to maneuver, I bring my destroyer to a stop, facing off cannon-to-cannon against the much larger ship -- and at just the right distance so I'm out of range of his remaining torpedoes and rocket batteries (which probably a new player would not be able to arrange on the open tabletop play area). Chances are against me here -- he has more guns and I've only got a 20% chance to hit with lasers from this range. But...

The dice come up 19% for a hit, and the Sathar Heavy Cruiser explodes into a ball of flame! Victory to the UPF this time.  John says: "Yeah, that's about what happens with the dice when you play Dan."

Conclusions -- I felt a bit sorry at the end of the weekend for the completely absurd run of luck I had through all of our games for about 72 hours; I wound up winning all 4 games that we played. John played very thoughtfully and absolutely deserved to head back home with at least 1 or 2 victories under his belt, but the dice were just crooked in my favor for some reason. The strategy of the stationary Heavy Cruiser was totally solid (especially for a lone vessel, and a new player wrestling with the movement rules), and while not a lock, he really deserved to win this game more than any other. Better luck next time!


Pole Arms Through the Ages

A graphic found in "A Critique of the Theory of Evolution",Thomas Hunt Morgan, 1916; therein shown as Figure 2 and noted, "Metropolitan Museum. After Dean."

Thanks to Wikimedia Commons for making this image available (link).


Weekend Warrior: SF Knight Hawks

Another too-infrequent game that I got to play with my friend John S. the other weekend: Star Frontiers Knight Hawks, in the open-table miniature format. I'd gotten John to play this once on the hexmap a few years ago, but this was his first time playing with miniatures, ruler, and protractor (effectively a whole new game). Here I'm using my house rules (e.g., point-value setup; turning spaced out evenly throughout a move; assault scouts with 25 hull points; etc.), and custom miniature duplicates to play.

Setup -- For his ships, John picked 3 UPF Assault Scouts (cost: 2 mega-credits each), while I picked 2 Sathar Frigates. We play on a table covered in black vinyl, with rulers, protractors, and ship and game statistics on index cards. John set up his scouts in opposite corners of the table, while I put my frigates together in the center on my side (all traveling the maximum allowed initial speed of 10).

Turn 1 -- John tries to split the board into thirds with his scouts. I respond by sending my frigates together after the left-most scout, firing all weapons systems (including laser batteries, forward-firing laser cannons, rocket batteries, and torpedoes). Even though the scout gets to use evasive maneuvers to try and dodge the torpedoes, I still manage to connect with one, and this blows that first scout to smithereens.

Turn 2 --  John swings his fast-moving scouts around at me, and I slow down (partly to avoid running off the table-edge) and try to aim back at him. This turn we're out of range for any weapons fire.

Turn 3A -- John brings his scouts in two attack. Unfortunately, one of them is traveling a bit too fast and doesn't manage to get lined up for the assault-rocket shot (left-hand side in the picture). I fire defensive ICM's at the other one and avoid getting hit too badly.

Turn 3B --  Continuing to slow down, I swing my frigates around as tightly as possible to return fire. I don't get them lined up with the forward-firing cannons, but nonetheless I'm in range with laser and rocket batteries, and these mage to connect with scout #2. Below, it explodes into smokey debris.

Turn 4 --  At this point I have an overwhelming advantage. John makes one more suicide-run, and this time I can get the laser cannons lined up and take out scout #3. Victory to the Sathar!

Conclusions -- John was at a clear disadvantage here, both learning the game basically for the first time, trying to manage the momentum from movement in space, and also dice-rolls continuing to be skewed wildly in my favor. While I'm accustomed since age 13 at the SFKH movement rules, I can see from a number of new players that it can be very difficult to adjust to this mechanic (John leaned back at the end said, "Trying to manage the movement is very draining", and he's certainly not the first with that sentiment). Also, strategically it's probably not best to split up one's forces as was done with the scouts here; better to have supporting and combined fire when possible.

One other thing is that I was trying to remember most of the rules from memory (I never printed out my house rules, for example), without having played in about a year. In retrospect I glitched one thing up: My recollection was that forward-firing weapons only work in a 10° arc to either side, but looking up the rule in the SFKH Conversion Booklet afterward, it's actually a more generous 30° arc. I'm not sure if that would have changed anything noticeably here, but for next time I should have some key rules points printed out. Also: Might be nice to have a list of ship names so not everything is "Scout 1", "Scout 2", etc.


Vettweiss-Froitzheim Dice Tower

Did you know that in 1985 German researchers discovered a dice tower dating to the Roman Empire of the 4th Century? Apparently, it's true. Scurrilous dice-throwers were a problem even then, it seems.

More at Wikipedia.


Weekend Warror: Bismarck

My good friends John and Theresa S. dropped by last weekend, which provided an opportunity to play some of my favorite games such as: Bismarck (Avalon Hill, 1978). We actually played two games that weekend on sequential nights, as John was learning the game (as the German player) for the first time.

Game 1 -- (Not pictured). John made the classic run around Iceland with his two ships. The visibility from weather, basically the most important variable in the game, was very much in my favor (usually a "1", i.e., any single ship or plane can search a zone), and I found him handily. I pulled the battleships Hood & Prince of Wales into battle (just as happened historically), and John pulled a novel screening move with the Prinz Eugen. So I bit my lip and fired at the cruiser, sinking it, but this allowed the Bismarck to pull away and withdraw. Thereafter I was unable to pin it down again for the rest of the game, but at least kept him away from the convoy lines. (Turns out, John had skirted the extreme edge of the map board where I failed to search; next time I need to get in the other player's head more.) So this ran out all the time in the game, ending in a tie with 16-16 victory points, after 7 hours of play.

Game 2 -- A much more action-packed game on the next night. Here's a view of my side of the table, as the British player, with Searchboard and Time Track as of 2400 hours on May-24:

John got even trickier on this game, first by sending the Bismarck & Prinz Eugen out of Bergen separately, and then doing some back-and-forth movement in the North Atlantic instead of heading for a direct breakout. I was only able to discover where he was by (again) fortunate visibility rolls and a "general search" success on the Chance Table. (Note to German player: this can't happen if you stay north of row E on the map.) So then I could envelop him in the upper-right corner, and once again pull the Hood & Prince of Wales into combat, along with several supporting cruisers in reserve.

Here we switch to the Battleboard for combat. This battle occurred in the middle of the night, so the ships started only 4 hexes away from each other (not the usual 6). Not wanting to let the Bismarck get away like the last time, I got very aggressive -- while the Hood lost its bow turrets on the first turn and had to turn tail, I sent the Prince of Wales steaming in to point-blank range. In the next turn the German ships savaged it with broadsides and sank it (flipped blue side indicates the sunk ship). Note to self: Don't get 1 hex away from the Bismarck, that sucks. Then John tracked down the damaged Hood and sank that, too. This put me at a great disadvantage in victory points for the game: down 30-0 after the loss of those capital ships.

Again John almost got away from me by zig-zagging further northeast before turning west again. I managed to find him with a cruiser and successfully shadow him from one turn to the next (the only rolls that weren't consistently going my way). Here I pin him down with about a half-dozen ships, land bombers out of Scapa Flow, plus a squadron of torpedo bombers from the aircraft carrier Victorious.

On the Battleboard, first I hit him with 4 bomber attack runs and manage to land a midships hit on the Prinz Eugen with one of them. Then I initiate naval combat with the King George V (sister battleship to Prince of Wales) and the light cruiser Kenya (with several other cruisers in reserve). Since this is a high-visibility day turn, the ships start at the maximum 6-hex range on the Battleboard. 

Now, the Kenya is a much weaker vessel than the others in this combat (I debated including it, but felt I really wanted as many guns as I could bear on the event). In an attempt to protect it, I use John's discovery of screening it with the King George V -- to no avail; John nonetheless targets it and sinks it in the first turn. Important game rule: As soon as the Bismarck goes down, the game ends and players tally victory points. So since I'm so far behind in points at the moment, I'm actually compelled to fire everything at the Prinz Eugen and get those victory points before the game ends. This is successful (thank to the prior torpedo-bomber run), and now we are left with just the two battleships facing off against each other.

Fortunately, the dice continue to be in my favor, the King George V doesn't suffer from its usual malfunctioning gunnery, and it manages to deteriorate the Bismarck's weapon systems (already somewhat damaged in prior combats) and then finish it off as it attempts to withdraw. Victory points are now close but in my favor: 44-38 for the British victory. I think I got John intrigued by the game, and if the dice had gone a little more in his favor, he surely could have won! This game took only 4 hours because it ended early on May-24, running only about one-third of the total time track for the game. As usual, this also gave me some ideas to fine-tune house rules for future play, especially considering how to ease new players into the game.

Edit: Here are my current house rules for playing Bismarck: