I was in Paris this weekend, and was recommended by my friend Adrian, who is also one of my player’s in my own group, to go to Rue Dante and check out the comic book stores there. It was a great suggestion, and I dragged by girl friend to a number of them, while looking at the great French and American comics and graphic novels (not that there is clear verbal a distinction in Europe), as the French, Dutch and Belgian artists have always made comic books for both children and adult audiences, with some stories very adult.
I was exiting a store, when my eyes fell on an art book, which struck a chord, and I open it, and I see the illustrations from one of my favorite dark fantasy comic books The Black Moon Chronicles (also available in English). The artist is Oliver Ledroit, and it turns out he only did the first few albums, but has done a number of other things since then. It was his first job as an illustrator and got it by showing his portfolio at a convention, when he was only 17.
Inside the book I learned that there is a whole line of miniatures for the setting, and that Ledroit, was inspired by the early Conan comics and has worked on role-playing games and the video game Heroes of Might and Magic
He has these vast tableaus of thousands of troops, and is mentioned to be inspired by Prince Valiant, which is also clearly evident.
“If you ask him to represent 5,000 guards, you will get an outpouring of millions of men.”
(author of Black Moon Chronicles, Marcela-Froideval)
I can’t say that my own games are directly inspired by these stories directly, but I would recommend them to any fantasy fan. Even after Ledroit left to pursue other projects the artistic style has been retained, and it is really epic, where the good-guy templars are cast as the bad-guys.
The art book was reduced in price from 50 to 20 euros, and was a bit of a steal, in my view.
It has also left me wondering about the French role-playing scene. It turns out the author of Black Moon Chronicles also makes role-playing games. What does that look like? What other games do they make? How big is it? Are any of them in English? It is a big market, and a country like Sweden, which is significantly smaller, has a number of very successful home-grown games, like Drakar och Demoner (which I’ve played a lot!), which leads me to assume that France must have many.
When I return from Internationale Spieltage in Germany, I will have to look into the other projects Ledroit has worked on, such as the science fiction SHA and the noir story XOCO and perhaps I will see some new RPGs at the convention in Essen.
I will conclude this post with a few more samples from the book. But it is full of awesomeness, so I recommend to check Ledroit out yourself.
My friend, and sometimes Game Master, Johannes, described some of the books that inspire him as a GM on his blog Sort Forsyning top 13 books (it’s in Danish). That in turn inspired me to share some of the books that I find are great inspiration for role-playing games. I think it will be a (current) top ten. I hope you get inspired too!
Malazan Book of the Fallen
These 10 books have so many cool ideas that it is mind boggling. It shows in the stories that the author has a background in anthropology and archaeology, as cultures and lands have layers upon layers of history, with different technology levels and magic. The world building was very interesting to me. It is very far from the traditional Gary Gygax medieval knights world.
I love them, but the books aren’t equally great, and were hard to read as they came out, as the amount of people and plot lines you have to keep track of is staggering. That said, I’ve lifted a number of ideas from these books straight into my current D&D campaign. I also wanted to replicate the magic system, where each “school of magic” (sort of) is drawn from a particular plane. But it was too much work for D&D spells and planes are so heavily integrated into the rules.
It is also dark, gritty and funny. The second book, Dead House Gates, and its story of the Chain of Dogs, remains the most riveting and gut wrenching fantasy story I’ve read.
Duiker was well past astonishment at anything he saw. Like the Tithansi tribesmen he’d occasionally exchanged words with, he’d begun to believe that Coltaine was something other than human, that he had carved his soldiers into unyielding avatars of the impossible. Yet for all that, there was no hope of victory. (Deadhouse Gates)
Bernard Cornwell has written 21 novels with the hard as nails British soldier Sharpe, who has his career during the Napoleonic Wars – mainly in the Peninsular Wars under Wellington. They are great adventures, full of good plot ideas, and they were the main inspiration for my Warhammer campaign. Cornwell’s insight, that to make the story interesting, he had to make enemies and obstacles on Sharpe’s own side just as big a feature as the enemy, is something I used. I also drew a lot of inspiration for the military campaign side of things, with the size of the army train, the unwieldiness of the artillery and the chaos and confusion of battle that Cornwell describes so well. Being part of a military organization is obviously also a powerful motivator for going on ‘missions’. Cornwell writes great action, and there are a lot of skirmish battles with company sized units, that I also drew upon for my campaign.
“Powder smoke spurted from the orchard, showing that Dragoons [no, not dragons!] barred that escape, yet it was his only hope. He shouted up the ladder. ‘Come down!’ He turned to Harper. ‘We’ll take the Spaniards with us. We are breaking southwards. ‘They’ll catch us.’ ‘Better that than dying like rats in a pit. Fix swords!’ (Sharpe’s Rifles)
Lord of the Rings (and Silmarillion)
It needs no introduction. For years it was one of the few fantasy novels available to me, because we had it at home in Danish. When I became better at English as a teenager, they whole fantasy field opened up, and I’m still trying to read through all the Fantasy Masterworks. But Tolkien will always be there, with the magic, orcs and journeys, and I still love ancient dwarf keeps full of secrets, treasure and ancient evil (and so does many of my players!). Don’t think I’ve ever made a fantasy campaign without a lost dwarf keep.
“The orcs have often plundered Moria; there is nothing left in the upper halls. And since the dwarves fled, no one dares seek the shafts and treasuries down in the deep places: they are drowned in water – or in a shadow of fear. (Gandalf, in the Fellowship of the Ring)
The Fall of the Roman Empire – A New History
This book is fantastic. It really inspires my world-building in many ways. Fundamentally, it provides insight into how that empire was ruled, from a variety of perspectives, including logistically and politically, and how half of it ultimately collapsed. Some of the key points I have taken from it are: rampant corruption, civil war every 20 years, high level of autonomy because of the limits of the administrative system, and the size of armies that could disrupt it -around 10,000 displaced tribal warriors settled in the Balkans created a domino effect that contributed heavily to the fall of the Empire.
Then there are some practical details around travelling, where I think in most fantasy games the logistics and time involved is underestimated. Theophanes had to travel from Egypt to Antioch (in Turkey). The trip was on great roman public roads, which made it very quick – he travelled 40 kilometres (around 25 miles) per day. With him, he brought a group of slaves, and soldiers for parts of the trip. This meant that the journey lasted almost a month. For his slaves he bought 160 litres of wine for the return journey, and bought two bottles for the same price for himself (obviously a better vintage). As he hardly knew anyone along the way, he also had to bring dozens of valuable gifts for other important Romans that he met.
“Running the Roman Empire with communications then available was akin to running, in the modern day, an entity somewhere between five and ten times the size of the European Union.” (The Fall of the Roman Empire – A New History)
This is the story of the legendary Meriwether Lewis who, together with William Clark, Sacagaewea and their party, was the first to cross America over land from the Atlantic to the Pacific. It is an adventure of the highest order, and really gave me a lot of inspiration for exploration of the untamed wilderness, and you see how resourceful humans can be. It is a direct inspiration for my current D&D campaign, where the characters help settle a new an unknown land.
“Together, under the leadership of the captains, they had become family. They could recognize one another at night by a cough, or a gesture; they knew one another’s skills, and weaknesses, and habits, and background: who liked salt, who preferred liver; who shot true, got the cooking fire going quickest; where they came from, what their parents were like, what dreams they had…They would triumph, or die, as one.”
In the next part I will be touching upon The Song of Ice and Fire, a book about Africa and a video game, among others.
I want to provide context for my posts on rules and campaign setting, and I’m writing brief overviews of each session for my players anyway, so I’ve decided to post the chronicles of my campaign on this blog. With my Warhammer campaign coming to a close at around 90 sessions, where I have a few paragraphs on each session, I can see it is also a pretty cool thing to have when looking back at all the great fun we had.
My campaign is fundamentally an exploration campaign. The realms of the East have been warring for 30 years against a dark empire named the Hrran Hegemony. The war is in a deadlock and the ‘good’ realms need resources, allies or some kind of joker to break the deadlock. Fortunately, the half-elves of the Isles of Finrod have found a new continent across the ocean. The largest human kingdom therefore sets up an outpost and has sent settlers there to establish a new realm, and to explore the lands for riches, magic and potential allies. The characters are among the second group of settlers sent there.
All members of the adventuring group come from the realms in the East, which have a geography and technology roughly equal to early medieval Europe. They decided at the beginning to form a accredited Adventuring Company, which provides some advantages, but cost them resources.
After 3 sessions the line-up is:
Sir Jarn Ashford, Human paladin 1/ranger 2
Arak, half-orc fighter 2/war cleric 1
Welk Del’mantanrese, human abjurer 3
Weylyn Cullain, half-elf moon druid 3
Horziver Xalybyr, gnome arcane trickster 3
Abbott, human warlock 3
Korrick the Lorekeeper, dwarf fighter 1/bard 1
The first 3 Sessions:
The members of the adventuring group has various ties to each other, both are mostly not close friends. They embark on their journey at the Isles of Finrod, and sail across the ocean on one of three vessels (of course). After a few weeks they make a stop at Hope’s Pinnacle, which is a lone island with a huge abandoned castle built by giants, where a garrison and port has been built by the good nations. They stay a couple of days before continuing their journey.
Close to land the ships are thrown into a storm and attacked by Kuo-Toa. The party fights them off, but after the storm dies down one of the three ships are missing.
Meta: They drew random questions I had created, which they answered to create more backstory for their characters.
They arrive at the small settlement, which lies in a cove, next to a river, surrounded by a vast forest, and with a couple of gleaming white towers reaching above the canopy in the distance. They are greeted warmly, and introduced to some of the people living there, including the governor Erin de Vrin. But with a missing ship, the mood has a somber undertone. Next morning, the two adventuring parties available to the settlement are sent out to find the missing ship. The characters are sent north, while their ‘rivals’ are sent south.
The group treks through the forest and at night are assaulted by a Displacer Beast, which they manage to slay. The following day they come upon a group of goblins, throwing stones and taunting a wounded elf captured in one of their pit traps. They drive off the goblins and rescue the elf. The elf has tattooed camouflage on his skin and he almost only use sign language.
With some difficulty the druid Weylyn begins to communicate in the elven tongue with the tattooed barbarian, and recognizes that he speaks some kind of dialect of the elven language. They learn that a big winged beast roams to the north, and that he finds it very important to stay hidden. The next morning the elf has sneaked out of the camp.
Using the wizard’s seagull familiar, they do spot the winged creature, which turns out to be a wyvern, and see its nest in a ruined tower. They decide to explore the tower while the wyvern is hunting at dusk. At the top of the tower in the nest of flotsam and bones, they find a couple of scrolls and a kuo-toa body. Welk and Horziver figure out how to destabilize the nest, and make a plan for attacking the wyvern when it lands, and hopefully drop to the bottom of the ruined tower. The plan succeeds and the party manages to overcome the wyvern without getting hit.
At night, the carrion crawler that had hidden in the tower came out to feast on the wyvern. It was discovered, and the group killed it.
Trekking further north they finally come upon a cove, where the lost ship is stuck on a reef. The cliffsides have many cave entrances, and they begin to explore. They find a body of a sailor, after chasing away two giant crabs, and in one of the caves they are attacked by many crabs, but rescue an exhausted guard from the ship, who hid in the cave.
They bring her back to their camp, to give her rest and hear her story. At night kuo-toa emerges at high tide from one of caves and sacrifice a human to some kind of snake creature that emerges from the sea.
Meta and Mechanics note:
Fighting the wyvern, the damage output of 6 players was very high, with above average rolls, and it was a short
encounter. But the danger of getting hit by the poison stinger of the wyvern made it a tense encounter. It certainly displays the weakness in D&D 5th if you have large groups against single enemies. However, in this case, a hit by the wyvern on almost anyone of the 2nd level characters would either drop or kill them. I think it was fun, and when the PC’s dare something dangerous, the player’s feel great when they succeed.
I am trying to avoid adding complexity and sub-systems to my game, but for my campaign world to be thematically coherent I did decide to make a system for weapon materials, so there is a difference between bronze and steel. As the group is in a remote land, as part of the first settlement in this “undiscovered” realm, I try to enhance the need to be self-sufficient, add incentive to explore and find new things, and that when exploring you need to be selective in what you bring with you on your travels (I know, that consideration disappears when they get a big bag of holding…)
I’ve tried not to make it too punitive to the characters, but it should push them to carry alternate weapons, rest after encounters and take down-time to craft their own items and so on.
As magic weapons and armour slowly will become available, I don’t foresee this to still be a very relevant rule-set after level 10. But as mentioned, the rules are meant to create mood and atmosphere.
Weapon quality and material
As not all cultures have the same level of technology within manufacturing of arms and armour, different enemies will have weapons and armours made from various materials with various properties, strengths and weaknesses. As to not skew the combat rules overly, most of the materials have their most significant impact on weight, price and production time, which can be important far from civilization.
Damaging and breaking weapons and armour
Whenever a combatant rolls a natural 1 in combat with a weapon, not made from steel, he has to roll a DC 10 DEX ability check to avoid the weapon breaking. If he succeeds using the weapon still confers disadvantage until it has been serviced during a short rest.
Whenever a combatant is hit with a natural 20, his non-steel armour gets damaged and he loses 1 point of AC, until he spends a short rest mending the damage.
Steel can in the old world (almost) only be crafted by dwarves, who knows its secrets and can create the temperatures necessary to forge it. Their arms and armours are highly prized, also among its enemies, and can easily fetch several times the price of regular iron forged weapons.
Steel weapons don’t need to roll for damage or breakage, unless fighting against a foe with magical weapons or armour.
Medium and heavy steel armour weighs 10% less than iron armour, as it needs less material for the same level of protection.
Rapiers are a new type of weapon used by the wealthy in the City-States, and it can only be made from steel.
Steel weapons and armor costs around 5 times the listed price in the Player’s Handbook.
Half-Plate and Full Plate are always made from steel and cost the price listed in the PHB.
Iron weapons are the default weapons in the Player’s Handbook. They comply with the breaking and damaging rules above.
Half-Plate and Full plates cannot be made from iron.
Copper & Bronze
Both materials are weaker than iron, and when fighting against steel weapons they automatically suffer the effects of damage on a roll of a natural 1 or natural 20 (for armor). If fighting against iron weapons the normal rules for breaking apply.
Stone & bone
Stone weapons suffer a -1 damage penalty against iron and steel armour. However, some cultures have processes that make the stone hard as iron or steel. The weight is still greater than comparable iron or steel weapons.
Bone breast plate: Made from mighty beasts, these breastplates function as regular breastplates, due to the high level of craftsmanship and density of the bone used. They would be highly prized in their culture.
Scale Armour: scale made from regular scales of beasts or from thick bone chips work as a hide armour, but scales or bones from truly dangerous beasts or magically treated can work as a scale mail or splint mail, depending on the construction. The scales of these beasts are equivalent of iron, but can be broken by steel.
Magical weapons or armour cannot be broken through regular combat. Special significant events have to occur to endanger them, such as Elder Dragon fire, volcanos and epic level magic.
Our casual campaign where we play Temple of Elemental Evil is moving forward faster, and with more enthusiasm, than I had anticipated. We’ve played a total of five sessions by now, and we’ve had many players joining for one or more sessions. My strategy of keeping the group of players relatively fluid seems to be working. 12 different players have participated with a total of 14 different characters (two died at the final encounter of the Moathouse). The fact that they are a bit on the low level side matters less, when we have 6 or 7 players participating in each session. They are now mostly level 3 with a couple still level 2. There is also the communal meta game element I had hoped, with maps being shared in the Facebook group we created and a big loot list kept up to date and shared. I hope the long term consequence of having rotating players will be that no-one tires of the dungeon style game. As the conversion notes from Brian C. Rideout assumes 4 players, I usually use the number of monsters more or less as written in the original adventure, or wing it, if it is too crazy (e.g. 144 giant rats! – how would you play that Gary G.??! and who would bother??). As they are also more people who needs to share the loot and magic items, that is also kept on the modest side, which I like, and which I think works better for 5ed, as the +1 modifier has a BIG impact at the lower levels.
The Temple Design I really enjoy the design of the temple. With the many roads to the same room or encounter, you don’t know as a DM what will happen, which is cool, and I simply let things happen, depending on their decisions. A fault is though, so far at least, there could be more history/information concerning the NPCs included in the design. There are also some quite odd design curiosities, which I both find charming and annoying. In Hommlett for example some important NPCs are named. Others are not. Some have a few physical characteristics described, but most have none. And the head-line for each location are things like: Large Building with a Sign (instead of inn) or Open Shed and House behind (instead of Smith) and so on, which makes the browsing experience really bad. What is cool though is the amount of detail in the room descriptions, which makes it hard for the players to guess what is important and what is not. They really have to think and check it out, and they do miss things from time to time.
As I decided to run a Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying campaign 8 years ago centered around the Storm of Chaos (a great invasion into the lands of men), I naturally had to introduce war and battles as key elements of the fiction. I’ve describe 3 methods to include battles below.
Battles have since then worked as backdrop, motivation and important story and character development opportunities.
In general, in my roleplaying campaigns I do put a significant emphasis on the ‘game’ part of ‘roleplaying games’. We have to roll some dice, follow some rules and let part of the tension and drama emerge from the randomness of letting the dice fall where they may. Therefore it is important that we also have a ‘game’ around some of the battles and major skirmishes of the game, and that they outcome of each battle came into question. The characters influence on the outcome was in the beginning very limited, but as they grew in power, the influence has become more significant.
I thought my experience with it could be helpful to others who want to include that element in their campaign.
The Story mode:
When the characters were weak and socially and politically unimportant, I let the mood, action and drama evolve around the build-up, march to the battlefield and the aftermath of the battle. This includes solving supply problems, scouting, recovering lost messages, surviving assaults on their supply lines and so on. I used the pushing paper method (below) for a minor skirmish. The battle itself can be entirely narrated, particularly when they are very weak, or you can add an event element. In my first use of this method they lost, and the whole retreat (read, fleeing in panic), was a central element of the story, and the events around that gave a lot of mood and depth to the story, and both a feeling for the characters that they were unimportant, and at the same time had an impact by rescuing some and creating some order in the chaotic aftermath.
To have a battle that involves dice, but without using 300 minis, I’ve used a Warhammer Fantasy Battle Light game using paper and card board. I make a map on our white board battle map, and create a card board counter for each unit. We roll D6 for their weapon skill (3+, 4+ etc. to hit), and D6 for armor saves, but I cut toughness rolls to reduce the number of dice rolls. Casualties were simply counted off the unit’s strength, either at a 1:1 ratio, or using whatever ratio that seemed appropriate for the size of the battle. I also have some rudimentary rules for movement, cover etc.
In a battle where the characters were leading their town militia and a contingent of knights, the characters were their own unit, and I reverted to regular role-playing rules, when they entered into combat with the opposing champion.
This worked quite well for large skirmishes and minor battles. It has gotten the characters really involved, it is a fun break away from the regular roleplaying combat, and it creates its own narratives about the heroic squires who routed a group of beastmen taking only one casualty and so on. It also has the group invested in getting more troops to defend their town, as it has an actual game impact.
I’ve run two versions of these types of battles:
You can have a battle where the characters have no impact on the outcome of the battle, but each experience events during the battle. This could be individual opportunities for heroics, or the opposite – to skulk away or flee a challenge. The key element in my view is that there are significant choices to be made. In one instance, as they were part of a company, they had the chance to rescue or help other members of the company before they got killed or maimed (or not). I also enjoy keeping the events partly random, as it adds to the ‘game’ element and prevents me from designing challenges that were specific meant to be just the right difficulty for any character.
A second type is a battle where the characters are powerful and can, as a team, significantly influence the final outcome. I introduced a victory point system for this type of battle. In essence, each event can lead to various numbers of victory points, and the battle will have different outcomes depending on how many victory points they score. The victory conditions obviously have to be predetermined. Again I think a key point is having hard choices for them to make, as the Warhammer universe is very grim. Thus sacrifice and bitter choices are central parts of the game. For example, they had to indirectly select which commander they wanted to lead the human forces. There were three choices, and all three had benefits and drawbacks, but they couldn’t get an “optimal” commander.
By introducing victory points I also force the direction of the campaign into the hands of the characters, and prevent myself from fudging it into the result I prefer. I think it is very satisfying to play, and reinforces that we are playing a game.
All in all, I find the battles to be very fun and dramatic elements in the campaign, and as a theme for a Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay campaign, it has worked extremely well.
One a side note, the format was initially inspired by Bernard Cornwell’s excellent Sharpe series of novels, about an English soldier fighting all the way through the Peninsular Campaign of the Napoleonic War.
As a one afternoon/evening adventure, we played Steading of the Hill Giant Chief. It was converted from the AD&D module into 5th edition.
There were 5 characters – all of them 12th level. There was a Dwarf Fighter with plenty of feats and maneuvers, a Dwarf Fighter/Barbarian, a Tiefling Warlock/Sorcerer, a Cleric of Light (damage dealing & suppoer) and a Cleric of Life (Healing). I gave them two uncommon items each, like +1 shield, wand of detect magic and cloak of protection +1.
We had great fun with the adventure. The group chose a wise path through the steading, found the secret stair down to the dungeon and located the treasure, explored parts of the dungeon, and fought the keeper and his pets as well as the stone giants and went back to the main hall to fight the chief and his giants as the final encounter of the evening.
Fundamentally the conversion worked well. It is easy to convert the two systems between each other. I did however make a number of changes to make it more fun.
First of all, the original module is very much made up of creatures which can only fundamental make a regular melee or ranged attack. To make it more interesting and varied I inserted an Ogre magi with a couple of bodyguards, and I change the manticores guarding the treasure to Chimeras to make it a greater challenge and to add the breath weapons, which required Dex saving throws. I also made the wife of the chief into a 9th level Cleric.
I also pulled a few giants from the main hall to the dire wolves and courtyard area.
Instead of just having two fire giants, I also added a young red dragon to the mix. The encounter was never played, but I think it would work well.
The keeper I gave a higher AC with armour and made his pets into Giant Apes.
I also changed the troglodytes to trolls, but the group did not go near them either.
The map of the steading is one of the greatest problems, if you are using miniatures. In D&D 5th hill giants are size huge, and they simply don’t fit the current map. Furthermore, as was mentioned in the original reviews of the module, some of the dungeon areas are way too small to house 30+ escaped orc slaves. As we didn’t use minis I didn’t bother converting the map, but I guess it needs to be at least double size, to fit all the giants in the main hall.
Game Play notes:
The challenge fit quite well against a group that didn’t go leave the steading and get a long rest. We were under some time pressure, so they opted to go full steam ahead. It was clear that the first couple of encounters wouldn’t kill any characters, but they did drain resources. The combat was also quite quick and smooth.
The upper level was a chance to sneak and gain information and kill a couple of groups of monsters.
The bugbears posed no challenge at all – which was fine, as they gave the group a chance to shine. The Keeper, with his giant apes really packed a punch, and I thought it was a fine encounter when the bugbears also came charging and were annihilated with fireballs.
At their challenge rating it was my impression that hill giants work well against a high level party, as a party of level 12 will most often hit CR 5 monsters no matter what, but the giants could really take some damage and deal some back. They only had 15-20 % chance of hitting the fighters, but with two attacks from each, the damage did begin to mount.
The final battle with the chief was fun, albeit a bit chaotic, and some of the players would have liked a proper battle map with minis. I forgot to include the cloud giant and stone giants (it was late), but the outcome was good, as they would have stacked the battle too much in the favour of the giants, due to their higher to hit bonus and damage output. As it were the giants put up a great fight, but had trouble getting to all the characters, which meant they were split up to try and circle the characters. At least one character was down, but the life cleric kept them alive.