Category: wargame related

Writing Advice for RPGs

Like many writers, my first real storytelling experiences came about through tabletop RPGs.  Like many gamers, I found the fiction sections included with most RPGs to be wasted space.  Even worse were the needlessly convoluted backstories to otherwise simple adventures, and despite (or perhaps because of my) owning and reading more than a few issues of Dungeon Magazine back in the day, I was never able to use the adventures to run more than one dog’s breakfast of a campaign.

For the most part, things have only gotten worse since the 1980s.  Luckily for us, one man is fighting to change all of that and elevate RPG adventure design out of the muck of ‘failed fiction writer’ and into the stratosphere of ‘actually useful at the table when running a D&D session’.

Bryce Lynch is the best adventure reviewer out there.  I’ve bought a fair few adventures from the fine folks at DriveThruRPG based on his recommendations.  And now he has a summation of all the things that went wrong (and a few that went right) at Dungeon Magazine in his Final Retrospective.

I have review standards and strong beliefs on what makes a good adventure. First and foremost it has to be useful to the DM at the table while they running it. This is the primary purpose of every adventure ever written, even if the designer didn’t understand that fact. You can use it as inspiration, steal parts from it, or use it as a doorstop if you want, but, judged as an adventure, it has to be useful at the table. My standards are VERY high.

Bingo.  The best backstory in the world is useless if you can’t find the relevant information within seconds of being asked by the players.

Dungeon Magazine is an abject failure in this regard. It is VERBOSE. Mountains of backstory, mountains of room text. All of it fights the DM running it at the table. If you are including something in the main text then it has to be directly useful for play. If it’s not then it needs to be removed or moved to an appendix where it can be ignored. Dungeon Magazine didn’t do this. It reveled in useless detail. A LONG room description that describes a trophy room, all of the trophies and accomplishments, and then ends “but it was long ago looted and now nothing remains but dust.”

I remember that adventure, though not that room description.  That adventure marked the moment in which I gave up on Dungeon Magazine.  Even at the tender age of 16, unable to identify WHY, I could at least recognize that the time had come to turn away from ‘modern’ published adventures.

Go read the whole thing.  If you’ve ever thought about publishing adventures, it’s well worth it.  The ‘Best Of’ list can be skipped, but his break down of what makes an adventure work is Plinkett-ian.



Not Sure How The Military Guys Do It

Today I took down the Christmas shower curtain and replaced it with the off-season shower curtain.  Dad being gone for seven months will do that to a household. No matter how much the little woman steps up her game, there will always be a long list of things around the house that need doing.  This is no slight on the part time single Moms, it’s just a fact of life that two people halve the work load.  And so, after two weeks of non-stop action bringing things back up to code, things might just settled down around the Chateau enough to get some writing done.

One of the changes to my schedule has been the determination to find a way to relax when the ankle-biters and bride are hovering about, eager to pull me away for a quick favor here, or a quick opinion there.  Writing – my normal relaxation – cannot be done under those conditions.  Writing requires full concentration to get into that three-tier thinking zone where you can consider the words in this sentence, the tactic decisions of the current chapter, and how those affect the strategic vision of the entire novel.    For relaxing while on call, my go to past time has been painting in preparation for miniature wargames.

Rather than clutter up this blog with my infrequent wargame material, I’ve opted to revive War In A Box.


The deep thoughts and inciteful commentary you’ve come to expect can still be found over at the House.  The thoughts on writing and odd political musing, you’ll still find here.  War In A Box is my dumping ground for quick hits and idle thoughts that don’t rise to the level of a Castalia House Blog Post, and will be kept light, fun, and entirely apolitical.

Well…mostly apolitical, as you can see from my latest miniatures:

The SDL and a VFM

Gaming Dry Spell Status: Over

It’s been far too long since I’ve been able to sit down at a table and enjoy a little light conversation while pouring over a board covered with little plastic pieces.  Over the weekend, thanks to my daughter’s generosity with her time, I managed to break the dry spell with a pair of tense games…of Candyland.  Hey!  Baby steps, man.  I’ve got some miniatures to paint up, and then we’ll see if we can’t convince a few friends to dare the hazards of 3d6 in order and drop into the dangerous confines of either Skull Mountain or Castle Meatgrinder.

Star Smuggler: Actual Play

I’ve been tinkering with a little (free) print and play game made available by DwarfStar Games called Star Smuggler (available here)In it, you take on the role of Duke Springer, star smuggler.  You have a ship, a full load-out of fuel, 2000 spacebucks, and 120,000 mortgage on your Antelope-class spaceship.  It’s a clever game with lots of neat little surprises, and I recommend it to anyone with a hankering for solitaire sci-fi hankerings.
It’s pretty much Traveller: The Solo (not that Solo) Game.
You can expect a more detailed write-up on the rule set itself at the Castalia House blog in a few weeks.
Here, I’m going to talk about me and my problem with solo rule sets.  It’s not a complaint, it’s an admission of my own weaknesses as a gamer.  I play too fast. 
Without somebody sitting by my side, forcing me to slow down, take my tame, make sure I’ve considered everything, I tend to race ahead, too eager to get to the next thing.  Particularly with solitaire games that include a dose of repetition, I want to speed through the checkboxes, finish the turn so I can find the next new discovery.
I’m also limited in my play time, so games that require extensive book-keeping and cross referencing just don’t get played correctly.  In Star Smuggler, you wind up with a lot of conditional payloads – X is worth Y if sold to Z but only worth A to B unless you get it there by C in which case it’s worth D.   When you only have an hour to play each week and wind up with a hold full of 10 trade goods like that it makes you long for a phone version of the game that can do all the remembering for you.
Star Smuggler is a great little game, and one you can dive into without reading the rules, but it really challenges me to slow down, write that down, look over everything twice, and only then make a decision. 

2017: The Year I Come Out of the Box

Even my wargames are pulp.
This rocket ship was built for
15mm sci-fi miniature battles.

If you direct your eyes to the left, over there on the sidebar, you can spot a tag in the cloud called, “wargame related“. It’s no secret that I’m an avid wargamer from way back. I played D&D back when I still had baby-teeth in my mouth, and even dabbled in a bit of ASL from time to time, but my true love has always been miniature wargaming.  I haven’t talked about it very much on Seagull Rising because I have another outlet for showing off my painting, modeling, and wargaming talents.

It’s a little blog called War In A Box, which I published under the nom de jeu de guerre, Warren Abox.  You can read a little bit about why I’m coming out of the box in this post.

The year of our Lord 2017 looks to be an incredible year. The opportunities presenting themselves to me right out of the January starting gate are mind-blowing. In addition to collaborating with one of my favorite authors on the background for a skirmish wargame, I’ll be hosting a semi-weekly column over at the Castalia House blog alongside such luminaries as Jeffro Johnson, P. Alexander, Josh Young, and Morgan (the man with no last name).  The first one went live yesterday.  They’ve got big plans for that blog, and I’m excited to be a part of it.

To make a long story short, thanks to Jeffro, it’s growing increasingly difficult to maintain a separation between my thoughts on gaming and on literature.  While I’ll hang onto the moniker “Warren Abox” for the purposes of forum continuity, that alias will pretty much be an open secret between you, me, and anyone else who really cares about these things.  To be frank, I don’t have the energy nor the time to sustain multiple internet personas, and opening this up should simplify everything for me on the back end.

Understand, this blog will remain largely unchanged.  I’ll leave the wargame heavy posts over at War In A Box, while this blog will stay largely focused on writing, literature, and general cultural critiques, with only the occasional forays into role-playing games, board games, and wargames.

Meanwhile, that semi-weekly column that I’ll be contributing to the Castalia House Blog kicks off on Wednesday.  If you’ve ever thought about attempting to take up the miniature and brush, but been intimidated by the front-end effort at starting a miniature wargame, you won’t want to miss out on this series.

Lessons Learned From King Conan

This isn’t something that I set out to do. 

One of the sellers at a recent Toy Fair had cheap copies of old Conan comics available, so I took a flyer and picked up a series of five of them.  I’ve been on a Howard kick lately, and have discovered that a great many of the older things I’ve been told are terrible are actually pretty darn good.  At ten bucks and an hour or so to read them all, it was worth a shot.

Good call, Jon.

The writing doesn’t rise to the level of Howard’s work and the art isn’t up to the level of the black and white Conan comics that introduced me to the character, but those are both really high bars.  The stories are classic sword and sorcery tales.  They may be a bit workmanlike, but for some reason I’m a lot more forgiving when comics use Conan for stories than I am when writers use him that way.  There’s something about the transition to a new form of media that puts my mind at ease.  It may be that Howard’s writing is just so dang good it feels cheap when anyone else writes about Conan, but the change in media wipes the slate clean and doesn’t automatically lead me to compare the tale with one of Howards.

The first issue features Conan’s standard nemeses in a trio of sorcerers, one each from Khitai, Ophirea, and Shem.  They plot and gamble to determine who shall slay Conan and claim the power behind the throne of Aquilonia.  They lure him to their lair – three towers on a magic isle and hijinks ensue.

It has also been instructional for me as a D&D guy*.  One thing I’ve always struggled with was high-level adventuring.  Once the characters hit domain level and bought castles and cathedrals and such, figuring out ways to get them back into the dungeon can be a bit tricky.  With armies at their disposal, the normal grind of leveling breaks down into, “Send in the marines. His Majesty has no intention of missing Taco Tuesday at the castle.”

We usually just broke kayfabe and ignored the kingdom while the party headed out on a little jaunt.  In these stories, Conan might be the King, but he’s still the only one who can solve the problem.  Either he is the only one who knows about it, or it is a threat that targets him directly.  These solutions might be old hand for many, but seeing so many examples back to back to back really helps get the juices going and expands this DM’s repertoire.

The art is standard early-80’s comic book fare and features the standard early-80’s style.  That is to say, while it features a strong sense of fantasy, the fashions and hairstyles are firmly founded in 1980 standards of beauty.  While they tend to run towards the workmanlike end of the spectrum, this is an end of the spectrum that I cut my comic-milk teeth on, so it feels right to me.


Best of all, my three year old loves them.  She asked me to read them to her, and it has been a real pleasure to introduce her to the magic and heroism of King Conan.  Reading Howard’s prose to a three year old never would have occurred to me, but the inclusion here of the bright colors, and the tactile feeling of pointing to the word balloons to help her follow the action keeps her engaged.

As a casual comics fan, this has been a fun little jaunt for me.  I’ll have to keep an eye out for more cheap thrills like this at the next convention/toy fair.

*This is incidental, but worth a mention.  For the record, I’m a big D&D guy, but try to post most of my gaming material over on a blog written by a pseudonym.  Seagull Rising is more political, and I try not to mix politics and gaming if I can help it.

Rattenkrieg: Assault on the Tractor Factory

Through his excellent wargame podcast, Wargames To Go, Mark Johnson introduced me to the concept of postcard wargames.  These are mini-microgames that make One Page Bulge look like Fortress Europa, but don’t let that fool you.  They might not fill a table or a weekend, but the right mix of mechanics can make for a challenging and pleasant session of pushing cardboard chits around a mapboard.

Turning Point Simulations has a collection of free postcard games listed on their website.  They include one, complete with die-cut counters, with every purchase you make from their website.  I played the first one, the solo game Rattenkrieg, and after a quick read through of the rules, me and my youngest were ready to start slaughtering some Nazis and Commies.

As you can see, the game uses just ten counters for each of the two armies, and takes place on a map with just ten spaces.  Despite these limitations, it includes rules for all of the following: air strikes, ambushes, hidden placement, snipers, generals, leadership, home field advantage, and supply considerations.  Not a bad list of variables to juggle.
So how does it play?  Fast and fun.  It’s not a terribly deep game, but what it lacks in depth it more than makes up for in sophistication.  There are little subtleties to this game that took me two or three play-throughs to suss out.  As the German leader, you’ve got to cover as much ground as possible, while converging on those pesky Russian forces that keep popping up all around you.
Your units start off strong, but every combat depleted their strength, and you’ve only got four air strikes available.  The Soviets, controlled by the game mechanics, have six units on the board to start the game, only five of which have known locations.  Each turn one more pops up in a random location.  If you are sitting there already, it won’t arrive.  This means that you have to balance overwhelming firepower placed in enemy controlled spaces with covering empty spaces to keep them quashed.
The game relies a fair amount of luck, and the first three games were handily won by the Germans.  A very suspicious outcome.  A closer read of the rules, and I noted that the Soviets start with five units on the board – duh.  That makes a first turn win impossible, and even a second or third turn win unlikely.
The first play through with the proper set up still went to the Germans:

This was a fast win, but it was still a close-run thing.  It required a lot of luck, and in subsequent plays where the dice didn’t so heavily favor the Germans, they were slowly ground down by the surviving Soviets.  As such, this seems like a historically accurate representation given that the Germans have to win fast or they won’t win at all.

So far, I’ve gotten 90 minutes of table time out of a free game that fits on a postcard.  Even if I never play this game again, it was already time well spent.  Especially given that it served as a chance to show my three year old how these games work.  (She likes the green ones.)  Try pulling off that trick with a round of Advanced Squad Leader.

Edit to add:  The Australian Wargamer has a second review that I found just after writing up my own experience.

Wargame Wednesday: Crisis 2000

My latest guest post over at the Castalia House blog was published today (clicky for linky).  It’s not often you see a fourth-generation wargame, and this one was published long before I had ever heard of the concept of 4th generation war.  Well worth finding and playing a few games of Crisis:2000.

As of this moment, Amazon has a copy of the magazine that contained this game in stock. 

It turns out (hat tip to Karl Gallagher, author of the highly recommended novel Torchship, for this information) that an updated version is available.  Crisis: 2020, was released in 2007 and from the pictures shown on Board Game Geek, looks a lot prettier than my old copy.  At this point, it’s not clear to me if this was anything other than a cosmetic upgrade.  More on this story as it develops.

Of course, we’re talking about updates to story about a nine year old update to a twenty-two year old game, don’t expect much.

Vote for Granddaddy – D&D Belongs in the Toy Hall of Fame

By way of Gamers and Grognards:

That’s right. There is a Toy Hall of Fame, and this year D&D is a nominee for induction! As of right now, it has the highest number of votes. Let’s keep it that way and get D&D into the Toy Hall of Fame! It might need votes as it is up against a couple that could be heavy hitters (not the least of which is Transformers.) Follow  the link and cast your vote:  Toy Hall of Fame

How is this not already in the Toy Hall of Fame?  It has to be because it’s more of a game than a toy, but it’s up and in the running now, so let’s make this happen.  D&D is already in Games Magazine’s Hall of Fame, but why not vote anyway?  Any little bit of publicity that helps grow the hobby is worth a few clicks.

Discovering Stories > Unwrapping Them

Back in the glory days of my gaming career, when six hour sessions of D&D were a regular occurrence, and not a rare celebration, the story that developed was as much a surprise to the DM as it was to the players. Sure, the DM had read or written a module, but there was no telling how the players would approach the situation, and how they would direct the action. Those games included a third party that exerted just as much influence on the direction of the game as the DM and the players. That third player was the much loved and much vilified dice.

A concrete example: Early in The Long Campaign, the villains the characters faced had a nasty habit of getting away at the end of the tale, and returning a week later to wreak vengeance. This wasn’t by design, it was just a happenstance of the circumstances and effective dice rolls on those disengagement checks. After a string of ambushes at inopportune moments, the players started looking for way to cut off escape before engaging combat. They started cutting down every foe that cut and run, just as a means of avoiding trouble down the road.

They weren’t a particularly bloodthirsty group of players. They hid from, snuck around, bluffed through, or bribed their way past many potential combats, but once the gloves came off they didn’t stop swinging until every enemy was dead or dying. Again, this wasn’t a conscious decision on anyone’s part; it just sort of…happened.

We didn’t know it at the time, but what we were doing was an exploration of a different kind. We didn’t write stories or prepare stories, we set up a few avatars, nudged them a bit this way and that, but at the end of the day all of our choices and all of the die rolls combined to form a story that no one could have predicted at the outset. No one planned for the polymorphed wizard’s cure to leave him with frog eyes. No one planned for the thief to wind up with a 19 Dexterity despite hobbling about on a peg-leg. No one planned for the fighter to be a reckless miser willing to charge into any fight if he caught even a glimpse of gold. These were all the result of fortuitous die-rolls, but all played a major role in the game.

We didn’t so much create stories as discover them through play.

Although not nearly as frequent or colorful, we found the same sort of ‘revealed story’ in a number of hex-and-counter wargames. We remember the game of Ogre that saw the behemoth meet its victory condition in two turns only to blow all of its tank treads on the next turn, unable to do anything while it was chewed to pieces by long range artillery. We remember that last German defender in the blockhouse singlehandedly save the left flank of the board from a Soviet onslaught in ASL. Our games of Dawn Patrol always started with a dice-off for the one Sopwith counter that always survived the game. (Which version of the biplane it was escapes me now, but it was a quirky suboptimal plane.) After a while, every scenario turned into “Kill Snoopy” for the German players. We didn’t decide that counter was nigh indestructible and give it stats to ensure that, something in the universe decided that, and we just ran with it.

This same process happened to tabletop RPGs.

When we started going to conventions in the early to mid 1990s, we found that most tables took a different approach. Players had prepared character arcs and full blown backstories – even before they’d rolled their first initiative. Adventures followed pre-set chapters and story lines. All of this entertainment was pre-built. You didn’t discover anything new, you just unwrapped a story already prepared for you. It was a bland and sterile way to play, and it his us just as college, girls, and so many other pursuits provided more stimulating diversions than running along trails blazed by others in tabletop RPGs.

Apparently wargames are undergoing the same sort of process.

Over on the twitbox, no less than Lewis Pulsipher himself, designer of such great wargames as DragonRage and Britannia, lamented the dearth of hex and counter wargames at GenCon 2016.

Didn’t notice a single hex-and-counter wargame at the vendors at GenCon. Lots at WBC, of course. (Can’t remember seeing hex ANYthing at GC).

— Lewis Pulsipher (@lewpuls) August 12, 2016

Through the course of that slow-burn conversation, we gradually approached the idea that pre-packaged stories dominate the RPG market today. For whatever reason, pretty hallways sell better than pretty sandboxes. As grubby little sandboxes, hex-and-counter wargames just can’t provide the same sense of ‘tell me a story but let me pretend to be participating in the telling’ that RPGs do. The very nature of most hex-and-counter wargames precludes set path routes. Players expect a level of freedom and decision in deployment, tactics, or timing. Wargames that limit those aspects in an effort to force players down a ‘pretty hallway’ wind up feeling more like Choose Your Own Adventure Books with a lot more fiddle bits than pages.

As a historical simulation, one would expect the player’s choices to be somewhat limited in scope. Supply, terrain, and ‘the army you have’, are all predicated on the facts of the historical encounter. And yet, players still have the option of trying a new strategy. They commit reserves earlier, attack cities from a different direction, or force a crossing farther upstream where the river is wider, but defenders lighter. Every one of these decisions can allow the tabletop general to discover a new story, rather than simply repeat the original story as recorded in the history books.

And yet, I begin to wonder if the hex-and-counter wargaming hobby isn’t following in the footsteps of the RPG hobby. Eager to write games that accurate recreate historical events, are designers writing more ‘pretty hallways’ these days? My readings suggest this is so, but my own pushing-cardboard tims is too limited to come to any hard and fast conclusions. 

My own experience with Khyber Rifles has not been encouraging. It features a card driven activation system that provides a very historical feel and pace to the game, but binds players hands so tightly that any given turn provides one clear choice: do this or waste the turn. It’s great for illustrating the challenges facing the historic commanders. It’s great for providing historical reality. It’s lousy for providing interesting tactical choices. I need a few more games under my belt to make certain, but at this point it doesn’t look good for Decision Games.

The upshot of this concern is that finding more data to support my contention that even wargames are moving towards a ‘pretty hallway’ model will require finding, buying, and playing more wargames. And that’s just the kind of tactical choice that this old grognard likes to be forced into.