Tuesday, June 23, 2015

How Telling “Tales” Led to The One Ring Campaign

My gaming group gathered together to play some board games last fall, reconvening after our Deadlands Reloaded game had come to a premature conclusion due to summer. We hadn’t convened to play anything for months, so we settled down to give some board and card games—both new and old—a whirl.

I brought along my copy of Hobbit Tales from the Green Dragon Inn. I had purchased the game at Gen Con 2014 after hearing good reviews about it and I had the chance to play it a few times with other friends prior to this get-together. I figured it be a good match for these folks, given our long history of roleplaying and collegiate theatre. I wasn’t disappointed (aside from the fact the game doesn’t contain enough scoring chits for larger groups) and we had a great deal of fun coming up with implausible and highly-entertaining tall tales as the game played on.

While we were playing Hobbit Tales, one of my regulars, Scott, remarked that he owned a copy of The One Ring RPG and thought it looked promising, but wasn’t sure how it would play, given that it relies a lot on the game master being able to quickly incorporate player proposals into the game. I also owned a copy of the original slipcase rules and was impressed with both the games design and appearance. A number of people whose opinions I respect had also chimed in about how well it plays. Despite these positives, I doubted that I’d ever be able to wrangle four people into playing The One Ring given its Tolkien origins. While most of my players and friends are readers and fans of fantasy literature, we’re assuredly not an enclave of Tolkien scholars.

Scott’s statement about the game requiring a good game master to play it effectively smacked of a challenge to me. I after all once ran a game of Dallas the Roleplaying Game set in the far future on the grounds that “There are no bad games, just bad game masters.” I saw this as an opportunity to give the game trial run and see if I could pull off a Tolkien-based RPG. I proposed we get together and play through the introductory adventure included in the game, “The Marsh Bell,” and see how we liked The One Ring. Scott, three of my other longtime players (Dan, Dave, and Tom), and my girlfriend, Mary (herself a hardcore fan of The Lord of the Rings), agreed and we set a date to get together and create characters.

On October 27, 2014, we sat down to embark on a trial session of The One Ring. We spent the first part of the evening creating PCs (which took some time given the two rulebooks amongst five players), and the end result was a company comprised of Amaline the Beorning (Mary), Calvagh Flame-Fur of the Lonely Mountain (Tom), Denethor of the Woodland Realm (Dave), Fie Coppercrusher of the Lonely Mountain (Scott), and The Silent of the Woodmen (Dan). We had just enough time to play through the opening act, a meeting with Glóin wherein he hired the company to seek out the famed dwarf Balin and another mysterious companion believed lost on the road.

We played through the rest of the scenario over the course of the following weeks, concluding the adventure with a triumphant rescue (I’ll skip the details so as to not spoil it for others or bore folks with a prolonged actual play summary). We took a vote and all agreed to continue on with the game. Because I wanted this to be both fun and a minimum of prep work for me, I declared we’d play through the adventures contained in Tales from Wilderland, the first anthology of adventures produced by Cubicle 7 for game. We’ve just completed the third of those included scenarios and interest remains high. In fact, I’ve even been working on a prolonged campaign arc of my own devising that deals with the potential return of the Witch-king of Angmar during the years between the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Our next session should see the company beginning to become embroiled in those dark events by their own choosing.

We try and squeeze a session of TOR in every other Sunday, but real life often pushes the game back an extra week, meaning we meet either every two or three weeks. We’ve just concluded our fourteenth session, making it the longest campaign I’ve run in about three years, and are scheduled to play this coming Sunday. From the Loremaster’s chair, the players still seem enthused about the game. We did have two players create new characters to address both the company’s utter ineptitude when it came to social situations and because they wanted to try character creation again now that they had a better grasp of the rules. Exit Calvagh and Fie and enter Dordin of the Lonely Mountain (Tom) and Milo Puddifoot of the Shire (Scott). The group also picked up a sixth player, John (or Jase, depending on whose speaking), and his character of Brand the Barding. The company now has representatives of all six starting cultures included in the rulebook and a wide array of skills applicable to most situations.

All in all, I’m finding that despite being set in Middle-Earth, I don’t feel tied down with canon. The default setting of Wilderland has enough room to pursue new ideas and introduce new characters, even when including the additional material developed by Cubicle 7. The rule mechanics are a nice mix of old school and new school, and excel at capturing the feeling of Tolkien’s tales. For a person who never expected to be running a game in Middle-Earth, I’m certainly having a blast doing so! I hope we continue on for a while and the company becomes the heroes they truly deserve to be.

In the future, I’ll have more to say about The One Ring campaign and some of the material I’ve developed for it. But we’re also looking at another round of the SBG before next week’s TOR game, so my mind is slowly being dragged back towards the miniatures game. We’ll take a look at Battle Games in Middle-Earth issue #2 next and the forces of Good that came with it.

Monday, June 22, 2015

BGiME #1: Goblin Ambush! Round Three

Evil seems to have the upper hand in this contest with the goblins trouncing Aragorn two to nothing. It was time for the winners of the preliminary rounds, Dave and Scott, to face off for the coveted and completely made-up title of Lord of the Miniature Things. Dave resumed his career of Evil, leaving Scott in the (if the past is any indication) unenviable position of playing Aragorn as the sole force of Good in the scenario. Would it be a complete rout by the forces of the Shadow?

Scott moves Aragorn up atop a hill as his initial move, a gambit that Dave responds to once again by committing all his goblin forces. It would require fancy maneuvering and some good Priority rolls for Aragorn to get through the mass of goblins.

The goblins already begin closing in. Aragorn spies an opening.

A lucky Priority roll and Aragorn is down the hill and moving diagonally across the field, hoping to loop around the hillock and standing stone in the center of the battle field and escape through the far corner.

Aragorn rushes across the battlefield thanks to a 6" movement rate and winning Priority. Goblins move to intercept.

The corner escape tactic was a good one, but Scott's luck turned after getting set up to make a run for safety. If I recall correctly, Dave scored a wound with his goblin archers by the boulder and Scott was blockaded by a quartet of goblins.

A lost melee battle pushes Aragorn back, forcing him further away from his goal of reaching the battlefield's corner.

Another lost Priority roll and Aragorn is surrounded. Now in a fight of 5 attack dice versus 3 dice, the outcome is inevitable. Aragorn perishes near a convenient standing stone to mark his death place.

It's pretty clear that the advantage I thought Aragorn had before playing this scenario wasn't a great as I imagined. In two out of the three playings of the skirmish, Aragorn got off to a strong start, but quickly became bogged down by the sheer number of goblins. Also, since this used an extremely simplified version of the SBG rules, things like Might and Fate points that allow a hero to accomplish exceptional deeds and shrug off wounds didn't come into play. I think had we been using all of Aragorn's potential, the battle would have had a much different outcome. We'll have to run it again later in the future and see what the results are with the full SBG rules.

End of Round Three
Winner and Champion: Dave (Goblins)

That's it for the coverage of Battle Games of Middle-Earth #1. I'll be delving into issue #2 real soon with a look at its contents, some painted minis of the Last Alliance, and a battle between Moria Goblins, High Elves, and the Men of Gondor. But first, some words about The One Ring campaign since I haven't delved into that ongoing endeavor yet.

BGiME #1: Goblin Ambush! Round Two

With Evil ahead by a win, it was time for Dave and Tom to play through “Goblin Ambush!” Dave was playing the side of Evil and Tom was Aragorn. Set-up was the same as the previous round. As the Forces of Good, Tom automatically wins Priority and it might have just been the last time he won Priority in the very short game that was to follow!

The board is set.

Goblins lurk on the verge as Tom slowly pushes Aragorn into action.

Tom sends Aragorn off to one side, perhaps intending not to replicate my tactical error. The Ranger begins the long run towards a safe getaway. Dave, however, decides to commit all of his goblins immediately, a tactic that will pay off well in very short order!

Aragorn creeps down the battlefield.

Goblins! Masses and masses of Goblins! Most are now within bow range.

As I recall, Dave had some success with his goblin archers, scoring a wound or two against Aragorn before he made too much progress towards the opposite edge of the board. The nearest group of goblins then charges the Ranger, keeping him from advancing further.

Aragorn is boxed in as more goblins scurry towards the battle

Already wounded, Aragorn is quickly dispatched by a small goblin mob. He has moved less than 12" from his starting position.

I think the fight lasted three turns at most. Some hot dice rolls from Dave put the hurt on Aragorn before the goblins even managed to get into melee range, and once charged and pinned down, the 4 dice to 3 dice Fight spelled the end for Aragorn. Once again, the fate of Middle-Earth is to fall under Shadow.

End of Round Two
Winner: Dave (Goblins)

BGiME #1: Goblin Ambush! Round One

With twelve Moria Goblins freshly painted, it was time to put them to the test. I sent the call out amongst my The One Ring players, hoping one person would be interested in giving the SBG a test drive and play through the “Goblin Ambush!” scenario included in the inaugural issue of Battle Games of Middle-Earth. I lucked out with three of my regulars, Dave, Scott, and Tom, wanting to give it a shot. We gathered together on a weekend night to push the minis around.

Although issue #1 came with an insert of cardstock fold-out figures to be used in some of the scenarios— Aragorn in this case—I had the Mines of Moria plastic mini of the world’s most famous ranger and painted him up for the battle (we’ll look at him when we hit issue #6). I also had some terrain pieces I had constructed. Since we were playing the most basic of the SBG rules which ignores things like terrain movement penalties and line of sight, these were simply cosmetic additions to spruce up the battlefield. The battlefield in this case was a $4 green tablecloth I picked up from the local thrift shop, its dimensions marked off with masking tape.

We had four players in total and the "Goblin Ambush!" scenario assumes two players. To accommodate our larger player size, we ran it as a mini tournament with three rounds. Two players would face off, followed by the remaining two, with the two victors of each preliminary round playing to determine the champion.

Going into the scenario, I had high hopes for Aragorn triumphing despite the great discrepancy between forces: one Ranger versus twelve goblins. With the goblins divided into three groups and armed with orc bows that don’t have the reach of Aragorn’s elf bow, I assumed the Ranger and his three attacks every Fight phase would spell the goblins’ doom. All the Good side needed to do to win was get Aragorn off the battlefield on the Evil player’s edge, and the goblins move slower than old Longshanks. Things did not go as I expected!

Scott and I faced off first with me playing Aragorn and Scott as the goblins. I headed straight for the high ground near the center of the battlefield, firing arrows at the goblins with Aragorn’s long ranged elf bow before they could reach me with their inferior bows. 

Aragorn spies incoming goblins--and cookies!

Reaching the high ground just ahead of the goblins, Aragorn was able to make a stand. I'd hoped to cut down a few of the foul creatures, clearing a path for a run towards the archers that stood between the ranger and a win. Things did not go as intended.

It looks good, but wait a moment.

Aragorn is soon encircled by goblins and his 3 attack dice are now being rolled against the goblins 4 dice.

A good roll buys Aragorn a moment's respite.

Evil wins the Priority roll and Aragorn is soon penned in again. He has suffered a wound or two and things begin looking grim.

"Screw this!" Aragron cries as he makes a break for it.

Long legs outstrip the goblins and the opposite side of the board is only a move or two away.

However, a lost Priority roll and the goblins charge the Ranger, preventing him from moving. Five dice to three dice proves too much for the side of Good and the future of Middle-Earth is changed forever.

As is often the case, a few bad dice throws and some questionable tactics led to one side's downfall. If I played this one again (and I suspect I will), I'd likely try a different tactic: I'd run down one end of the battlefield or the other, putting as much distance between Aragorn and the goblins on one of the side edges of the board. Plunging directly into the middle allowed both flanking groups to reach Aragorn and to pile the attack dice onto him. The bows didn't play a major role in the skirmish, but from what I understand of the SBG that's common. Despite Good's loss, it was a fun battle with good friends. Getting so close to escaping before being cut down wasn't the worst case end scenario for Good as we'll soon see.

End of Round One
Winner: Scott (Goblins)

On to Round Two.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

BGiME #1: Painting Moria Goblins

As previously mentioned, the premiere issue of Battle Games in Middle-Earth came with a sprue of 12 Moria Goblins to get your miniature collection started. The issue also include some paint pots and step-by-step instructions for making your new miniatures table-ready.

My copy of the magazine had neither paint nor miniatures, as it was acquired on the secondhand market. Luckily, however, I had a Mines of Moria starter set with 24 Moria Goblins inside sitting on my workbench shelf as well as pots of the same paint colors that originally accompanied the issue. Although I have experience painting miniatures and have acquired a few hard-earned skills, I decided that with the Battle Games in Middle-Earth miniatures, I’d abide by the techniques and instructions provided in the magazine itself. By doing so, I felt I’d be more honest in my goal of working through all ninety-one issues as if I had received them back when they were originally published. I might even learn a few new tricks or banish some previously-acquired bad habits.

As a result, the first batch of BGiME miniatures came out looking like something a novice painter might produce, say one who picked up this weird little magazine at the newsagent’s because it had The Lord of the Rings on the cover. I call these little gents my “Stuck In Goblins,” because as the issue advises, “The best way to learn to paint your models is just to get stuck in!” Although not as detailed as my usual paint jobs, I cranked them out in two short painting sessions, making them the faster group of LotR SBG minis I’ve ever painted. And besides, we’ll be coming back to these guys when we hit issue #20. We’ll spiffy them up then with some new skills and techniques.

My friends, let’s meet the Moria Goblins! Click each photo to enlarge.

The Stuck In Goblins of Moria, Inc.

One half of the band

There is some resemblance to the members of GWAR.


Move like you've a Balrog on you ass!

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Battle Games in Middle-Earth Issue #1 Overview

So with the preliminaries out of the way and our introductions made, let’s get down to one of the main reasons this blog exists: to work our way through the Battle Games in Middle-Earth periodical and have some fun in the process. I’m not the first to attempt such an endeavor—others have done it better—but that’s no reason to avoid a good time!

Battle Games in Middle-Earth debuted in 2002, but the exact month escapes my research. The very first issue demonstrated the format that would remain largely unchanged throughout its ninety-one issue run: five sections covering various subject matter. The first section is “Guide to Middle-Earth,” which contains general information about the world and occupants of Middle-Earth. In RPG circles, this would be the “fluff” chapter—a section that provides colorful details and pertinent information, but no hard game mechanics or tools. The “Guide to Middle-Earth” in issue #1 introduces each member of the Fellowship of the Ring via a photo portrait, provides a map of Middle-Earth, and presents a glimpse at some of the battles Aragon participated in. 

The second section is “Playing the Game.” In every issue, this chapter introduces the reader to the rules of The Lord of the Rings Strategy Battle Game. Rather than a single, massive information dump, “Playing the Game” presents the rules piecemeal, allowing the reader to digest them in small bits and experiment with how they work in actual play. In this issue, “Playing the Game” lists the materials the reader will need to play the SBG—tape measure, dice, record sheets, pencils, figures, a place to play, and so forth. Once those are in hand, the reader can turn to the next section and immediately start playing.

The third section is “Battle Game.” Every issue of Battle Games of Middle-Earth features either a scenario to play or a battle report of an actual game intended to instruct the reader and teach potential strategies. Not every issue has a scenario, but they far outnumber the battle reports, descriptions of actual play which tend to extend across two back-to-back issues. 

“Battle Game” in issue #1 not only includes a basic skirmish scenario, “Goblin Ambush,” but also contains an extremely simplified version of the SBG rules so that the reader can begin experiencing the game as soon as he gets the magazine home. The rules are basic and stripped to the bone, but succeed in teaching the four phases that comprise every turn of the SBG: Priority, Move, Shoot, and Fight. This knowledge is vital to learning the complete game and the “Battle Game” chapter demonstrates them clearly and, most importantly, by getting the reader to actually use them. 

“Goblin Ambush” is a basic “fight-or-flight” scenario. Aragon has stirred up a lair of goblins and must either escape the battlefield or kill all the goblins. The goblins merely seek to slay the Ranger. To make things even (theoretically), the Good side controls only Aragon, while the Evil side has twelve goblins at his command. Luckily, the goblins are broken up into three groups and Aragon is a mighty hero with three attacks every Fight phase. He might not be as doomed as he appears!

The fourth section is “Painting Workshop,” a chapter dedicated to instructing the reader how to paint his miniatures and teaching various techniques of increasing skill as the magazine series progresses. Issue #1 is dedicated to getting the 12 Moria Goblins included with the first issue off their sprues and onto the table as quickly as possible. Issue #1 also came with a brush and four paint pots to get the would-be wargaming hobbyist off and running. After reading this section and following its instruction, the reader would have twelve table-ready goblins prepared to face off against Aragorn. The Aragorn miniature itself wouldn’t appear for several more issues, but Battle Games of Middle-Earth provides a stop-gap solution: a cardstock sheet of twelve fold-up figures including the entire Fellowship, Elrond, Gamling, and Eowyn. These figures would be utilized in “Battle Games” appearing in later issues.

The magazine closes with my favorite section: “Modeling Workshop.” This chapter introduces a new terrain project in each issue, beginning with the simplest of wargame table decorations and ending in complex projects that are centerpieces for battles. Issue #1 teaches the reader how to create the most basic of battlefields—a table or floor, one perhaps covered by a cloth, blanket, or towel, with books piled underneath to form hills and valleys. The section also features a very brief overview of commercially available scenery and terrain, as well as a galley of “Dream Battlefields.” These intricate battlefields will be familiar to anyone reading the SBG rulebook or who has perused issues of White Dwarf. These well-constructed and beautifully decorated battlefields are intended to get the reader’s juices flowing and induce dreams of the elaborate tabletops he will build once he has mastered the tricks of the “Modeling Workshop.” Or at least that’s what it did to me.

The back cover of the magazine provides a preview of the next upcoming issue, advertising what new miniatures the periodical has in store for the reader, as well as ad copy on the subjects covered in the five sections of the magazine. In many issues, the next two Battle Games in Middle-Earth are advertised, showing the reader a full month of content in advance. Issue #1’s back cover informs us that we’ll be seeing a sprue of elves and men of Gondor, as well as some additional colored paint pots in issue #2 and to look for a Frodo miniature and one more paint pot in issue #3. I can hardly wait for the next fortnightly issue to arrive at my newsagent! 

And there we have it, the inaugural issue of Battle Games in Middle-Earth. If only it had been available in America in 2002, I might have succumbed to the wargaming bug much sooner. In a forthcoming post I’ll get my hands dirty with issue #1 by painting some goblins as if I were a first-timer and taking the “Goblin Ambush” scenario out for a spin. I think things might turn out bad for those goblins…

R.I.P. Sir Christopher Lee

I awoke this morning to find my news feed and social media alerting me that Sir Christopher Lee had passed away on Sunday. The man was an icon and, given his myriad accomplishements in life, I considered him the real "Most Interesting Man in the World." Although Sir Christopher portrayed many roles, I loved him dearly as Saruman.

"I gave you the chance of aiding me willingly, but you have elected the way of pain"

To honor his life and memory, I broke out the paints and worked up the Saruman mini I had waiting in my box of unpainted pieces. It came out rather well given the short turn-around time. While the photo displays some of the flaws with my brushwork, in person it meets the wargamer's criteria of "it just has to look good at arm's length.