Monday, November 6, 2017

A Look Back at The Keep on the Borderlands

Let's take a look at a classic D&D adventure module - B2 The Keep on the Borderlands by Gary Gygax. I'm not sure if this is a review with a healthy dose of nostalgia, a retrospective, or something else. In any case, I'm not even going to pretend to be impartial as I examine the module's place in gaming, it's effects on me as a gamer, and take the module apart to see how it works.

Dungeon Module B2 The Keep on the Borderlands was the first RPG adventure module I owned. It came into my possession the same way it did for so many others - it was part of the Dungeons and Dragons Basic Set. My set was the victim of too many moves from place to place in my youth. The rulebook, dice, and cardboard box are long gone. My current copy is second hand from Half Price Books.

The Keep on the Borderlands was intended as an introduction to D&D. Space is given to advice aimed at new players and DMs. Much of Gygax's advice still holds up decades later - things like "be fair" and "read the module before running it". A few pieces - like designating a "caller" to act as an intermediary between the DM and the other players - reflect practices specific to the time or to Gygax's gaming group.

The titular Keep is detailed enough to support adventures by itself - rob the bank, recruit some NPCs to help the party, or maybe even try to impress the person who runs the place. Curiously, the Keep is presented in much the same fashion as the module's dungeon - the Caves of Chaos. There are combat statistics for the Keep's inhabitants and notes on how they will respond to threats. A modern presentation might omit these details on the assumption that nothing would happen to the party's home base. One wonders if Gygax had players who were inclined to just straight up assault locations like the Keep for one reason or another. Another curiosity is the lack of names for the NPCs of the Keep. Each is referred to by their title - the Jewel Merchant, the Curate, the Castellan, etc. This gives the Keep a generic feel and places the burden of coming up with names for the NPCs on a DM running an introductory adventure.

The map of the area around the Keep and the Caves of Chaos places the two locations within a few thousand yards of each other. However, Gygax presents the Caves as something the party needs to search for, despite the presence of a road that runs close by it. The inhabitants of the Caves do not seem to be engaged in hostilities with the Keep or any traffic using the road. Otherwise, the garrison at the Keep would have already been deployed to neutralize the nearby threat. The Keep's garrison also seem to be content to leave the handful of wilderness encounters described in the module for the adventuring party to deal with. Why the Keep and the Caves of Chaos are located so closely to each other is never explained.

The majority of the module presents the Caves of Chaos. The dungeon is not a linear series of static encounters. The players are free to choose the cave entrances in any order they wish. However, knowledgeable players will generally opt to tackle the lower caves first, since they contain less challenging monsters.

Each of cave entrance leads to an underground area inhabited by a specific group of monsters - kobolds, goblins, orcs, hobgoblins, more orcs, gnolls, etc. Gygax includes notes on how each group will react to invading adventuring parties. It was not Gygax's intent for the monsters to stand around while a battle rages within earshot. The monsters sound alarms to bring in reinforcements and employ various tactics to counter those of the player characters. There are even notes on how each group of monsters will behave if the party leaves any survivors behind, but this is rare in my experience.

While there are suggestions of conflicts between the different groups of monsters inhabiting the Caves of Chaos, it is still difficult to imagine all of these monsters co-existing in such a small space. The space occupied by the Caves of Chaos is comparable to an apartment complex. Perhaps the evil cult exerts some influence on the other groups? In any event, internal politics exist in Caves of Chaos and can be exploited by the player characters. However, Gygax provided no mechanism for the DM to use to pass this information on to the players.

The Keep on the Borderlands may have prompted the earliest arguments about alignments and morality within the D&D setting. The various groups of humanoid monsters contain family units, including children, living with them. Their fate is entirely up to the players, but the module provides no advice to the DM on how to resolve the issue.

The module's text and art evoke strong imagery. Gygax's description of the party's journey to the Keep conveys the sense of leaving the safety of civilized lands behind for a dangerous wilderness. Erol Otis' piece on the back cover of the Keep - standing tall atop a hill as the party approaches it - suggests its role as a solitary bastion of law on the wild frontier. The Keep on the Borderlands has a raw quality found in many early RPG products. It lacks even a hint of professional polish, relying on unrefined energy and amateur enthusiasm to carry it forward.

There's no way I would run The Keep on the Borderlands for my current group of players. They are mostly veterans to the hobby and have been through it far too many times not to have it memorized. I've run homages, borrowing elements and breathing a little nostalgia into newer systems, but I haven't run the module directly for many years. If I ever had a group of players fresh to the hobby, I might run it. Maybe. It no longer holds any surprises, secrets, or lessons for me. It's place in my collection is as a touchstone to days long gone.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Throwback Thursday: Some Thoughts on Knight Hawks and the Second Sathar War

This is another article from my older and even more defunct gaming site from the early 2000s. It is essentially an analysis of the space combat system packaged in Knight Hawks, the second boxed set for TSR's Star Frontiers RPG. The first boxed set for the game - Alpha Dawn - lacked any details for starships, only including rules for booking passage on starliners. I found this to be a curious omission for a space opera themed game clearly intended to compete with Traveller.

Reading the article now, I realize it has significant flaws. It could really use some editing to weed out redundant words. If I wrote it now, I would have stronger things to say about defensive fire, balance issues, and the light cruiser - a ship that combines the strengths of the heavy cruiser and the destroyer with none of the weaknesses. A little more description of Sathar retreat conditions would help in examining the Sathar player's strategy. And the whole thing just cuts off after the ship descriptions. However, I'm going to let it stand as it is, warts and all.


An Overview of the Game

Knight Hawks is an expansion set for the Star Frontiers role playing game, published by TSR in the early 1980s. It covers all aspects of space travel within the Frontier, including starship combat. The starship combat rules were designed so that they could be used independently of the role playing game. This separate wargame is refereed to as the "UPF Tactical Operations Manual" and includes ship designs and scenarios. However, the Knight Hawks role playing supplement also contained a campaign using the wargame rules.

The campaign, called the Second Sathar War, is an invasion of the United Planetary Federation. Little is known about the Sathar invaders, except that they are a worm-like alien race and are not willing to accept peaceful coexistence. The only option for the UPF is war. Unfortunately, the UPF Spacefleet and the various planetary militias are not fully prepared. The outcome of the resulting struggle is uncertain.

Oddities in the Second Sathar War Rules

Knight Hawks dates from 1983 and reflects the limitations of that period of gaming. Do not misunderstand, it is a quality product. The rules are simple and contain no game breaking loopholes. This is evidence of good playtesting, something that is sometimes lacking in later games. However, there are editing mistakes and a few exploitable quirks in the rules. This is true of nearly every game before and since Knight Hawks.

The biggest exploitable quirk in the game is defensive fire. This allows the non-moving player to fire at his opponent’s ships after they have completed their movement. The volume of fire that a stack of ships can produce is enough to stop most close range attacks cold. This is not an issue for larger ships, who have the weapons to fight at longer ranges for a few turns before closing on their weakened opponents. However, fighters and assault scouts have to get close to use their assault rockets. Defensive fire makes an assault rocket attack against an opponent not softened up by long range weapons very costly. Even worse, the militias are mostly made up of assault scouts and often face superior Sathar fleets. Even approaching from the sides or rear (where forward firing weapons cannot be used), militia assault scouts can be wiped out before they can use their assault rockets. Overall, defensive fire reduces fighters and assault scouts to running down damaged opponents, instead of being a decisive arm during the early stages of combat.

The rules for militia ship movement on the strategic map have a few minor loopholes. Militia ships are required to move towards their home system when Sathar ships show up within it. The militia ships are only able to move freely when the stations in their home system are destroyed. Militia ships are also required to make at least one attack (defined as firing one weapon at one enemy ship) before any attempt to disengage. This means that a militia force is required to send one of its ships within weapons range of an overwhelming Sathar force before retreating. It is also possible for a Sathar fleet to force a militia to "yo-yo" by exploiting the movement rules for militia ships. The militia force moves into its home system, sends one ship to attack the Sathar fleet threatening the system, and breaks off. The Sathar fleet then disengages without destroying all of the stations in the system. The next turn, the Sathar move to attack the system again. This forces the militia to go through the whole process of sending one of their ships to attack the Sathar all over again. Eventually, the militia will get worn down to nothing. Note that this is not a practical tactic, since it ties down a Sathar fleet for several turns as it moves into a system, attacks, and breaks off. It is an interesting loophole, though.

There is an error in the UPF Spacefleet Order of Battle. "1 Minelayer" is listed twice under Task Force Cassidine. It is unclear if this meant that there are two minelayers in Task Force Cassidine or that something else was supposed to occupy one of the spaces. A quick check of the Dragon Magazine Archives revealed nothing useful, so we decided to treat it as a printing error and simply delete the extra minelayer during our campaign.

Errors also appear in the section describing the counters and on the printing of the strategic map. Some of the colors listed in the rules for the militia forces do not match the counters. Also, the rules state that the planets are labeled on the map, which is not the case.

The Misjump Probability Table lists a safe jump probability for battleships crossing three transit boxes per day. The problem is that battleships have an ADF of 2, which limits them to moving no more than two transit boxes per day while risk jumping. However, the ship modification rules do allow for increasing a ship’s ADF, so it is possible if modified ships are used in the campaign. In fact, a "fast battleship" would be a significant UPF advantage.

Comparing the UPF and the Sathar Fleets


The differences between the UPF Spacefleet, planetary militia, and Sathar forces reflect the background of the two civilizations. The UPF is slightly more technologically advanced and their personnel tend to be well trained. Each Planetary Militia benefits from the same technology as the UPF, but their personnel are not up to UPF standards, especially in the area of navigation. The Sathar lag behind in technology and training, but have an advantage in numbers.

The UPF Spacefleet possesses the full range of ship types. It operates the only battleships in existence. The rest of Spacefleet are made up of fairly light ships. The most common ship types are frigates and assault scouts. However, its light cruisers add considerable strength to its forces.

The planetary militias only possess the smaller kinds of ships - assault scouts, frigates, and the occasional destroyer. They are only intended as patrol forces and rely on Spacefleet to reinforce them against the Sathar. The main weakness of the militias, other than their limited firepower, is the high chance of failure when risk jumping.

The stations throughout the Frontier are both a blessing and curse for Spacefleet and the militias. They serve as a source of supply and can add to the firepower available to a defending force. On the other hand, they are targets for Sathar attacks and need to be defended. The fortresses, in particular, are both the centerpiece of a system’s defenses and the focus of an attack.

The Sathar has a wide range of ship types, but lack battleships, minelayers, and assault scouts. They make up for the lack with large numbers of heavy cruisers and destroyers. The Sathar can deploy eight heavy cruisers against Spacefleet’s three battleships and one heavy cruiser. Sathar destroyers can form the core of strike groups that perform the same mission as the UPF’s assault scouts - hitting ships bigger than they are.

UPF Strategy

The strategy of the UPF player must, by necessity, be defensive. However, this does not mean placing units on the board and waiting for the Sathar to attack. The UPF player must make taking every objective as costly as possible for the Sathar while preserving his own forces. Unfortunately, this may mean fighting a series of hit and run battles while falling back to the fortresses.

Placement of the units in the non-attached ships pool is the first chance to alter the outcome of the campaign. The UPF player puts his forces on the strategic board first, with the exception of Strike Force NOVA and any non-attached ships assigned to it. The placement of stations, militia, and most Spacefleet forces are dictated by the rules and cannot be altered. Placement of the non-attached ships is entirely up to the UPF player.

As a whole, the non-attached ships represent a powerful force. They are not the equal of the UPF Task Forces or Strike Force NOVA. However, putting all of the non-attached ships in a system that is certain to be attacked will stop or slow the Sathar advance.

On the other hand, the non-attached ships could be split up and used to correct weaknesses in the various Spacefleet forces and militias. The non-attached destroyers can be used to strengthen Task Force Cassidine and Strike Force NOVA, which are short on lighter ships. Task Force Prenglar has no fighters or carriers to support fighters, so adding the non-assigned assault scouts would give it a workable substitute. The light cruisers can significantly strengthen a militia. The minelayer is best placed in a system with a fortress, since such a system will be attacked to satisfy the Sathar player’s victory conditions. The fighters are best split up between Task Force Cassidine and Strike Force NOVA.

Once the campaign starts, the UPF player should keep in mind that the victory conditions for both players depend on the survival of the fortresses. Defending those fortresses is a top priority. Note that this does not mean parking ships in the fortress systems and waiting for the Sathar to come knocking on the door. Any opportunity to defeat a Sathar fleet away from the fortresses should be taken, as long as the fortresses are not at risk. Note specifically that the Prenglar system should never by uncovered as long as the Sathar player has ships he has not yet placed on the board.

A particular weakness of the UPF is how the militia is scattered all over the map. The rules only allow them to move one system away from their home system at the start of the game, but they can still reinforce important areas. For example, the militia in Theseus can move to White Light to protect the fortress there.

The UPF player should study the possible Sathar retreat conditions carefully and try to figure out which one the Sathar player has chosen. Triggering the retreat condition could win the game for the UPF player.

Sather Strategy

The Sathar player decides the tempo of the game - he decides how his forces are split up and where they attack. The UPF player must respond to the Sathar player’s action. Unfortunately, the Sathar player is limited by the Sathar victory conditions (destroy twelve stations, including all four fortresses) and the secret retreat condition. The UPF player knows that the Sathar has to attack the fortresses at some point to win and that certain things will trigger an automatic Sathar retreat. However, when the fortresses come under attack and what triggers the retreat are up to the Sathar player.

Because of the number of alternatives, this section will outline a few broad early-to-mid game strategies for the Sathar player. These describe which start circles to use and what targets to attack. After that, the Sathar player will be reacting to how those first few attacks went and the mid-game will begin. The number of variables to consider during the mid-game carries it outside the scope of this document. The end game will be simple - kill all of the fortresses that are left and make certain that the Sathar destroy a dozen stations total.

Above all else, the Sathar player must remember that his objective is to destroy stations. The ships that the UPF and the militias will put in his way are nothing more than distractions. Do not get caught up in hunting down ships. Go after the stations and the UPF ships will have no choice but to defend them.

The Zebulon Entry Option

The Sathar place a fleet in the start circle leading to the Zebulon system. The attack fleet moves through Zebulon and attacks the fortress and armed station in the Truane’s Star system. Destroying both stations would put the Sathar player closer to achieving his victory conditions. The Sathar attack fleet would then proceed to Dixon’s Star and Prenglar.

There are two major possible obstacles to a Zebulon Entry. First, the UPF player may reinforce Truane’s Star with ships from his non-assigned pool. This can be countered by simply waiting until all UPF forces are on the board and strengthening the attack fleet enough to assure victory. Second, Truane’s Star is a possible start location for Strike Force NOVA. Make the attack fleet powerful enough to take on both the militia and Strike Force NOVA.

The Prenglar Assault
This is a "go for the throat" option. The Sathar places as large a fleet as the rules allow on the start circle leading to the Prenglar system. This forces a showdown with Task Force Prenglar and gives the Sathar a shot at both stations in Prenglar.

There is considerable risk in this plan. The UPF player could try risk jumping Task Force Cassidine to Prenglar. He could get lucky and Strike Force NOVA could show up at Prenglar. The worst case scenario is facing all three major Spacefleet formations in the Prenglar system. The only way to mitigate the chance of failure is to make the attack fleet as strong as possible. If defeated, the Sathar fleet should try to link up with any other Sathar forces on the board.

The payoff of a successful Prenglar Assault might be worth the risk. It is fast enough to catch the UPF player off guard, especially if he has already started moving his ships around. Smashing a major UPF Spacefleet Task Force and killing two stations (including a fortress) will seriously weaken the UPF player. This is too big of a threat for the UPF player to ignore.

The Fromeltar Entry Option

This is not quite as exciting as a Prenglar Assault. The Sathar place as large a fleet as possible on the start circle leading to the Fromeltar system. This positions the Sathar fleet to attack Fromeltar, Dramune, Cassidine, and Prenglar. A successful drive through all of these systems will put the Sathar player close to achieving his victory conditions.

Unfortunately, there are some powerful obstacles in the way. Fromeltar, Dramune, and Prenglar are all possible start locations for Strike Force NOVA. Drumune has a fairly powerful militia, which Task Force Cassidine is likely to reinforce. A worst case scenario has both Strike Force NOVA and Task Force Cassidine reinforcing Drumune. The Sathar attack fleet should contain as many ships as the rules allow to counter this possibility. Still, such a battle could easily go either way.

Successfully attacking Fromeltar, Dramune, Cassidine, and Prenglar will kill off eight stations, including a fortress. It is an ambitious plan that involves facing the most powerful forces that the UPF player can field, but such a showdown is inevitable. Even if a Fromeltar Entry gets stalled or driven back, it will put the Sathar player closer to achieving his victory conditions.

The Outer Systems Gambit

This plan addresses a problem with the Zebulon Entry Option, the Prenglar Assault, and the Fromeltar Entry Option. All of the other plans focus on attacking the fortress in Prenglar to the point of ignoring most or all of the other fortresses. A Sathar attack fleet sitting in Prenglar is in a poor position to attack the remaining fortresses in Madderly’s Star and White Light. The Outer Systems Gambit is designed to supplement other plans by killing off these fortresses.

The Sathar place a fleet in the start circle leading to the K’tsa-Kar system. After destroying the station there, the fleet moves to attack White Light and Madderly’s Star. This puts the fleet in position to attack Cassidine.

There are a number of things that the UPF player can do to counter this plan. Moving the militia in Theseus to White Light results in a fairly strong blocking force. The White Light militia can also be strengthened using ships from the non-assigned pool. Task Force Cassidine could move in to support the fortress at Madderly’s Star, but only by uncovering the Cassidine system or splitting up. Of course, a lucky roll by the UPF player could have Strike Force NOVA showing up in time to save the day. The best way to addresses these concerns is simply to make the attack fleet powerful enough to fight off a combined attack from Task Force Cassidine and Strike Force NOVA.

Combining Options

The rules allow the Sathar player to put no more than half of his ships in a single starting circle. This forces the Sathar player to divide his forces. Each of the plans above were designed to be combined with one other. Note pursuing three or more attack plans at the same time invites defeat in detail.

The Prenglar Assault combines well with either the Zebulon Entry or the Fromeltar Entry. Such a combination would pin down Task Force Prenglar and complicate planning for the UPF player. Task Force Cassidine would either have to move to block the threat from Zebulon or Fromeltar, reinforce Prenglar, or split up to do both. Even if the Prenglar Assault fails, the surviving ships can still link up with the other Sathar fleet.

The Outer Systems Gambit works best with a Fromeltar Entry. Combining it with the other plans exposes both fleets to defeat in detail. The UPF player could, for example, use most of his forces to defeat a Sathar fleet threatening White Light and Madderly’s Star while keeping a Sathar fleet coming in from Zebulon at bay. The UPF player can then turn his ships around to destroy any Sathar ships left on the map. The key to a successful Outer Systems Gambit is keeping Task Force Cassidine from reinforcing Madderly’s Star or White Light. The Fromeltar Entry is perfect for that.

Knight Hawks Ships

The game provides a variety of ship types. In general, larger ships carry more weapons, but are less mobile than smaller ships. Likewise, smaller ships need to use their mobility advantage to survive against the firepower of larger vessels.

One unusual feature of the game is that the ships on all sides are identical. A Sathar frigate is identical in performance to a UPF Spacefleet frigate or a militia frigate. This simplifies the game, but deprives it of a certain amount of atmosphere. Instead of different ships, the UPF and the Sathar are distinguished by giving each side a different fleet mix. The UPF possesses battleships, minelayers, and assault scouts. They favor frigates over destroyers. The Sathar rely on an older fleet of heavy cruisers and destroyers. Also, if skill levels are used, the UPF are better trained than the militias. The militias, meanwhile, are more skilled than Sathar (who are rated the same as pirates).

Fighters

Strengths: Most mobile unit in the game. Can use evasive maneuvers against torpedoes. The assault rockets it carries gives it firepower out of proportion to its size.

Weaknesses: Most fragile unit in the game. Carries only three assault rockets and no other weapons. Must be supported by a carrier or base.

Comments: The assault rocket is powerful, but short ranged. This forces fighters to close through defensive fire. Always approach enemy ships from the sides or rear, which limits defensive fire to battery weapons. Always operate fighters in groups to spread out defensive fire. Expect to lose fighters before they get in position to attack.

Assault Scouts

Strengths: Almost as mobile as a fighter. Can use evasive maneuvers against torpedoes. The assault rockets it carries gives it firepower out of proportion to its size.

Weaknesses: Fragile.

Comments: Assault scouts do the same job as fighters and do it better. Assault scouts use fighter tactics, but will tend to survive longer. The laser battery is a good backup weapon, allowing assault scouts to use defensive fire and as a long range option.

Frigates and Destroyers

Strengths: Large enough to take damage and still fight. Mobile enough to avoid the forward firing weapons of heavy cruisers and battleships.

Weaknesses: Relatively fragile compared with larger ships. Only carry a small number of ICMs, making missile weapons a serious threat. Frigates lack long range particle weapons, while destroyers only have an electron beam battery.

Comments: Frigates and destroyers are very similar. They can either be used for fighter-style attacks or to escort larger ships. A group of frigates and destroyers is mobile enough to attack heavy cruisers or battleships from the sides or rear. These attacks can be devastating if the group can get close enough to fire torpedoes. While on escort duty, a frigate or destroyer is mobile enough to intercept a threat before it gets too close.

Minelayer

Strengths: Carries a large number of mines and seekers, which can be placed on the map prior to a battle using the campaign rules.

Weaknesses: Lightly armed for a ship about the size of a destroyer. Carries only a limited number of ICMs, making missile weapons a serious threat.

Comments: Minelayers are specialized ships. Once the mines are laid, the wisest thing to do with a minelayer is to keep it out of the way. This is especially true during a campaign, since a minelayer can escape to reload and participate in a later battle.

Light Cruisers
Strengths: Best mix of firepower, mobility, and hull strength in the game.

Weaknesses: None.

Comments: Light cruisers are almost as tough and well-armed as heavy cruisers, but are also almost as mobile as destroyers. Adding light cruisers to a group of frigates and destroyers will slow the group down a little, but the increase in overall firepower is worth it. Light cruisers should not be forced to move in formation with heavier ships, since this will rob the light cruisers of their mobility advantage.

Heavy Cruisers

Strengths: Durable and well-armed.

Weaknesses: One of the least mobile ships in the game.

Comments: Most other ships can literally fly rings around heavy cruisers, but their firepower earns respect. Heavy cruisers are best used as the core of a fleet. They advance towards the main target while smaller ships maneuver around them. The seeker missiles are useful against ships that try to get behind them. A heavy cruiser can be very useful while defending a station. The heavy cruiser can orbit with the station and fire on any attackers. The heavy cruiser’s lack of mobility will not longer be a factor. Even better, the station and heavy cruiser can support each other with ICMs.

Assault Carriers

Strengths: Can rearm fighters. Nearly as tough as a heavy cruiser.

Weaknesses: One of the least mobile ships in the game. Lightly armed for a ship nearly as large as a heavy cruiser.

Comments: Assault carriers are essential to using fighters offensively in a campaign. Without carriers, fighters are limited to defending stations. The campaign rules clearly state that fighters without a carrier or station to use as a base are destroyed at the end of a campaign turn. This makes carriers prime targets. They should be escorted by a small strike group of frigates and destroyers at all times. More importantly, carriers should stay clear of close engagements.

Battleships

Strengths: The biggest and best armed ship in the game.

Weaknesses: Rare. Only a little more mobile than heavy cruisers.

Comments: Like heavy cruisers, battleships from the core of a fleet. They essentially do the same jobs as heavy cruisers, but are better at them.

Armed Stations

Strengths: As tough as a heavy cruiser. Can support fighters, if available.

Weaknesses: Limited to orbital movement. Lightly armed. Limited number of ICMs make missile weapons a serious threat.

Comments: Alone against a large attacking force, an armed station is a sitting duck. It lacks particle beam weapons and will be outranged by fleets containing ships larger than frigates. Even worse, its best defenses are masking screens, which render its own laser battery useless. It does have rocket batteries, but an enemy fleet has no reason to get within range.

Fortified Stations

Strengths: Tougher than a battleship. Can support fighters, if available.

Weaknesses: Limited to orbital movement. Lightly armed.

Comments: A fortified station is better armed and more durable than an armed station, but this is not enough against an enemy fleet. A fortified station lacks particle beam weapons and will be outranged by fleets containing ships larger than frigates. It also suffers from the same problems as armed stations concerning its masking screens and rocket batteries.

Fortresses

Strengths: Most durable unit in the game. Well armed. Can support fighters, if available.

Weaknesses: Limited to orbital movement.

Comments: Tough, armed with a good mix of weapons, and carrying a variety of defensive systems, a fortress is a hard target for any fleet. The only flaw in its defenses is the lack of a stasis screen. Even alone, a fortress will inflict some damage to an attacking fleet before being destroyed. However, it is unlikely that a fortress would be caught alone in the course of a campaign, due to its importance to the victory conditions.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

My TimeWatch Resource List



“TimeWatch, by Kevin Kulp, is a GUMSHOE game of investigative time travel. You are a defender of history, an elite TimeWatch agent plucked out of your native era and trained to stop saboteurs from ripping history apart. Your training allows you to diagnose disruptions in the time stream and track down the cause, making conclusions that less capable investigators might just guess at. The TimeWatch rules presume that you are a highly competent badass. Who are you to prove them wrong?”

- Description of the TimeWatch RPG from Pelgrane Press.



I backed the TimeWatch RPG Kickstarter in 2014.* Time travel hi-jinks and the GUMSHOE system made for an appealing combination. The latest series of updates include electronic versions of the finalized game materials and news that the books are going to press soon. Which gives me a deadline for getting ready to run the game if I wish to wait until the physical copy of the rulebook arrives. My knowledge of real and alternate history isn't something I can rely on to launch a TimeWatch campaign without research. To that end, I put together a resource list after a quick pass through my personal library.

GURPS Time Travel. Steve Jackson and John M. Ford explore the concept of a time travel RPG. Plenty of ideas to mine here. Pity that the timeline in the back ends in 1994, but that can't be helped. Copyright 1991, 1995.

GURPS Alternate Earths. Kenneth Hite, Craig Neumeier, and Micheal S. Schiffer present a number of alternate histories for the Infinite Worlds campaign frame from GURPS Time Travel. Some of the alternate histories don't stand up to close inspection, but whisking the player characters in and out of them fast enough should help prevent awkward questions. Copyright 1996, 1998.

GURPS Alternate Earths 2. The sequel to GURPS Alternate Earths. Copyright 1999.

GURPS Who's Who 1 and GURPS Who's Who 2. These anthologies complied by Phil Masters presents figures from throughout history. More importantly, those figures are presented from a game perspective. Information on how they might react to the player characters and notes on how they might impact a time travel game are the focus. Copyright 1999.

Suppressed Transmission and Suppressed Transmission 2. Anthologies of Kenneth Hite's column of the same name which ran in Pyramid Magazine during its years as a website. In particular, the essays on history and alternate histories promise plenty of ideas for the borrowing. Some of the concepts here are more thoroughly explored in Kenneth Hite's later works. Copyright 2000.

What If? An anthology of essays describing turning points in military history and the alternate worlds that could have resulted from changes to that history. Copyright 1999. Edited by Robert Cowley.

What If? 2. Editor Robert Cowley casts a wider net for the essays in this sequel to What If? The book is not exclusively focused military history. Copyright 2001.

With all this, I don't have to come up with my own ideas for TimeWatch. I can just borrow from the hard work of others!


* The fact that I'm getting my backer rewards two years later doesn't surprise me. My previous Kickstarter experiences have turned me a little cynical and I regard the delivery dates given for backer rewards as fictional. I have to credit Kevin Kulp with keeping up excellent communications and updates for TimeWatch's backers. Not every Kickstarter goes to that much effort to maintain goodwill.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Lemax Large Pebble Mats

It's that time of the year! The air has turned from crisp to cool to cold. The leaves fell long enough ago for the neighbors to wonder when they are going to get raked up. And the mainstream stores keep lowering their prices in a bid to attract Christmas shoppers. It's a good time to find some deals.

Two Lemax Large Pebble Mats - one still in the packaging and the other unrolled. American quarter coin provided for scale.

These Lemax Large Pebble Mats are a good example. Lemax markets them for use in Halloween or Christmas village dioramas. They are available at locations like Micheal's as a seasonal item starting in Autumn and are frequently marked down after Halloween.

Each mat measures roughly 18 x 36 inches. Two mats provide a 3 x 3 feet play area. This works fine for 28mm scale skirmish games such as Frostgrave, but is small for games like Warhammer 40K and Warmachine/Hordes. The 3 x 3 feet area also works for 15mm scale games, but the stone pattern looks a little big with smaller scales.

Close up of the detail. The "stones" and the "surface" are clearly discernible.

The detail on the Pebble Mats easily passes for cobblestone. The stone pattern does repeat over the surface of the mat, but the pattern is a little over 3 inches wide. This is big enough not to be obvious after terrain and models are placed on the mat. Some drybrushing and a wash would bring out the pattern, but is not necessary.

The Lemax website does display other patterns for their mats. However, the “Brick” pattern is the only one that I have seen in person. I choose the “Pebble” pattern over the “Brick” for its versatility. Stone has been used for roads over a longer historical period and over a wider area than brick. It fits right into fantasy settings and even looks fine for lower-tech science fiction settings.

Side on view of a rolled up mat. Note the thickness of the plastic mat.

The mats are made of a thick and heavy plastic. Scuffing the surface may be a long term issue, but the material should hold up to regular use. The plastic is thicker than comparable felt mats, so simply folding them up is not an option for storage or transport. The mats do roll up well, but the edges do need to be smoothed out before use.

Full price for a Lemax Pebble Mat this size is 24.99 USD. This is comparable to felt or cloth mats of similar size. However, I took advantage of the Micheal's post-Halloween sale price to get them for a significant mark down. A word of warning! They are harder to find as the holiday season goes on. Good hunting!

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Spartan Scenics Warehouse Accessories

Painted pieces and packaging. I decided against painting them all gray and grimdark.

These are from a set of 28mm scale resin terrain pieces. I'm guessing from their appearance that Spartan Scenics had Infinity in mind when they put these on the market. However, they look generic enough to work as scatter terrain for most science fiction skirmish wargames and RPGs. Not all of the pieces that come in the box are pictured - I lost some due to gremlins between purchase and painting.

The pieces are solid resin and most do not require assembly. The detailing is good. There are handles, security keypads, and other greebles that suggest a functional (but scaled down) object. The casing is excellent. There are no mold lines marring the details of the pieces. There are a few bubbles on the underside of a couple of pieces, but no one will notice once the pieces are placed on the table.

After reviewing my long list of projects, I decided on a quick and basic approach using spray paints for the majority of the work. The first layer is a gray auto body primer. The base coat is a dark brown (Krylon Brown Camouflage Paint Made with Fusion – Ultra Flat). I divided up the pieces into four groups and picked out a color for each group (Krylon ColorMaster Paint+Primer in Aluminum, Iris, Rich Plum, and Pumpkin Orange). In each case, I sprayed at a high angle to leave a little of the brown base coat under the raised areas. This created a shading effect and an overall dirty, worn look for most of the pieces. The biohazard symbols were picked out with red (Reaper MSP 09279 Fresh Blood). The keypads and display panels got a dark green base (Reaper MSP 09011 Leaf Green), followed by a bright green layer (Reaper MSP 09294 Alien Goo), and highlighted in a bright yellow (Reaper MSP 09287 Neon Yellow) to simulate self-lighting. The pieces painted in non-metallic paint were then sealed (Testors Dullcote) to bring down the shine from the satin and gloss finishes of the spray paint.

Sarah Blitzer looking for a clear line of fire through all these cargo containers. She's a little concerned about all the biohazard warning signs.

Functionally, the pieces work well at blocking lines of sight and for models to use as cover. The pieces can be stacked on each other with varying levels of stability. The appearance of the pieces convey a science fiction feel that works well for just about any space opera game. I was most strongly reminded of firefights in the Mass Effect games, but diving behind cargo containers is a staple of Star Trek, Star Wars, and other science fiction settings to numerous to list here.

The back of the box has some interesting suggestions that I couldn't resist expanding on. Using the pressurized tanks as cover may not be the best idea, especially if they contain explosive gases. Using biohazard containers as cover is an even worse idea without protective clothing. Coming up with a chart to determine the effects of shooting these containers with a couple of die rolls should be easy enough in any game system. The pallets could be remotely controlled anti-gravity platforms designed to make forklifts unnecessary. Anti-grav pallets would move around during a fight and complicate planning - a model could find itself without cover as the pallet and its cargo floats away from it. Alternately, some quick hacking into the pallet's software could move them at one player's command. Getting rammed by an anti-grav pallet loaded with heavy cargo containers is bad news even for someone in power armor.

Overall, these pieces look like they will be a staple of my science fiction games for some time to come.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Nazis in Stargate: SG-1

Status Update: I'm working on some new content for this poor, neglected blog as my limited free time permits. In the meantime, I happened on some content from my even older and long defunct gaming site from back in the day. I'll be dusting off some of it from time to time.

This post features the idea of using the descendants of a lost Nazi expedition in the Stargate: SG-1 setting. It predates my purchase of Alderac Entertainment Groups' licensed Stargate: SG-1 game and the last few seasons of the TV series. It also predates the Stargate: Atlantis antagonists known as the Genii, who loosely resemble the concept.

Enjoy!


Nazis in Stargate: SG1

Introduction

The premise of Stargate: SG1 is steeped in weirdness. It establishes that the pyramids were landing pads for alien starships, that there is a factual basis for many of Earth’s myths, that at least one crystal skull does have strange powers, and other Fortean goodness. Most of the time, ideas like these are presented as background material and the story moves on. None of the characters seem to dwell too much on the fact that basic assumptions about the history of their world are routinely destroyed.

Putting some of the ideas from the series together and mixing in some weirdness from other sources can lead to even more interesting results. Here is an example. The Stargate unearthed at Giza in 1928 lacked a DHD. The episode "Watergate" establishes that the Soviets captured the missing DHD from the Germans after WWII. "Solitudes" reveals that existence of a second Stargate and DHD in Antarctica. Add the notion that the Nazis possessed secret underground bases in Antarctica.

Stir carefully.

The result? Nazis in Antarctica, who use the Stargate there to escape Earth after WWII.


The Giza DHD
"The Tomb" establishes that the DHD at Giza was removed by German archaeologists in 1906. They would have been able to determine its age from other clues at the dig site. That the DHD is a product of advanced technology would be self evident. However, it is not likely that they were able to determine its function, since they lacked a Stargate.

Some of the higher ranking Nazis had an interest in archeology and the occult. For example, they sponsored expeditions to locate the Holy Grail in France. If word about the discovery at Giza leaked out, someone working for the Nazis may have made the connection between the DHD and whatever was found in 1928. This may have sparked more research into the DHD.

The Soviets may have captured any German research along with the DHD after WWII. The Russians already had detailed information on the SGC when they started their own Stargate program. The German researches may have given them an additional edge over the Americans. The Russian government could still have the notes from these researches.


Antarctica in WWII

There was no fighting in Antarctica during WWII, but a few interesting events did occur in the area before, during, and immediately after the war. Here are some of the highlights from real world history.

January 1939: Alfred Ritscher leads an expedition from the Kriegsmarine catapult-ship Schwabenland. The ship operates two Dornier-Wal flying boats which are used to survey over 200,000 square miles. Six-foot metal spears with swastika fins are dropped from the aircraft to stake a claim on the surveyed territory. Ritscher names this area Neuschwabenland ("New Swabia").

During WWII: The German commerce-raider Pinguin sinks or captures thousands of tons of Allied shipping in southern waters.

After WWII: Several high-ranking Nazis elude capture and disappear.

August 1945: U-530 and U-977 surface off the coast of Argentina three months after V-E Day. U-977 is undermanned. 55 German U-boats are unaccounted for.

Late 1946: Operation High Jump. A US Navy task force of 13 ships, including an aircraft carrier, spends several weeks surveying the Antarctic continent. The expedition is commanded by Admiral Richard Byrd.

The idea of Nazi bases in Antarctica dates back to speculation during WWII. The story of how the Nazis established themselves in Antarctica usually starts with Ritscher. His expedition discovers hot springs and ice caverns that would be suitable for the creation of secret underground facilities. Over the next few years, U-boats transport the personnel and supplies necessary for the construction of these bases. More technology and materials are sent as the war turns against the Nazis. The bases become a bolthole for some of the high-ranking Nazis would went missing after the war. Operation High Jump was an attempt to locate and possibly destroy any Nazi bases in Antarctica. Speculation on how the bases remained hidden over the decades range from secret deals with other governments to moving the bases to the Hollow Earth. Although these are interesting notions, they are outside the scope of this document.


The Implications of a Nazi Base in Antarctica
In the Stargate: SG-1 setting, it is assumed that one of these bases was near the Stargate and the scientific personnel there learned how to use the DHD. This would create the ultimate escape route for the Nazis. This would be especially tempting after months of living in the cold of an Antarctic base.

One problem is that the abandoned Nazi bases would have to be hidden even after they were abandoned. The SGC built a base near the location of the Antarctic Stargate ("Frozen"). The function of the base was to see if there was anything else of interest at the site after the Stargate and DHD were shipped off to the United States. The SGC personnel would have found any signs of a Nazi presence near the Stargate.

The best solution is that the Nazis, who were paranoid to begin with, eliminated all traces of their bases to throw off pursuit. Explosives would have collapsed any caverns. Teams of men could have carefully picked up any trash near the Stargate that would betray their use of it. The last team to go through the Stargate may have triggered a partial collapse of the cavern it was in as a final security measure.


Destination Scenarios

Stargate: SG-1 establishes that dialing random coordinates takes a great deal of luck. Even then, it might take hundreds or thousands of tries before a wormhole connection is made to another Stargate. And not every Stargate is on a world capable of supporting life.

The scenarios below assume that the Nazis got lucky. After all, finding the long dead bodies of Nazis on some airless world is not a very interesting adventure (although it might be used as the start of one). The scenarios also assume that any bases in Antarctica were stripped and abandoned. The Nazis committed all available resources to escaping Earth and colonizing the world they discovered.

Destination: An Uninhabited World

Most of the worlds capable of supporting life seem to be inhabited by a human or alien culture. The exceptions tend to be uninhabited for a reason. They might be geologically unstable, lack enough water, be too close to a black hole, or pose some other danger to anyone on the surface. Again, it is assumed that the Nazis got lucky. Their world is safe for long term human habitation.

The main difficulty faced by the Nazi colonists is a lack of numbers and technological resources. A more realistic Antarctic Nazi base (as much as such a notion can be realistic) holds no more than several hundred personnel. A few hundred is more likely. Many of those people would be needed for fairly mundane tasks, such as growing food. Even with equipment from Germany or captured from Allied shipping, they may not be able to immediately establish an industrial base. This would make it difficult for the Nazis to maintain the equipment they brought with them. Keeping up with technological developments on Earth would be impossible. Of course, a cinematic campaign featuring the Nazis as evil masterminds can feature thousands of personnel and whatever equipment that Nazi Germany was even remotely capable of manufacturing.

Destination: An Unclaimed Primitive World

This describes a world with a pre-industrial human culture that has no contact with any of the various alien races. The native population would number in the thousands. Most of them make a living by growing crops, but there are a few specialists such as blacksmiths.

How the Nazis would treat the natives would depend on their ethnic background. Anything other than an Aryan population would be subjugated. Such a population would be a good resource of aid for the player characters, especially if they can set up some kind of resistance movement.

It should be noted that the Nazi definition of "Aryan" changed considerably over the course of WWII. Their Imperial Japanese allies were embraced as Aryans of a sort. Even the fanatical Waffen SS units were recruiting non-Germans by 1943, including Russian POWs. This decision was spurred by personnel shortages. The Nazis were not above redefining their beliefs for pragmatic reasons. The realities of a small population supporting a growing industrial base might force them to do so. On the other hand, a die-hard SS commander might order the native population worked to death regardless of other factors.

Assuming that the native population survives, the Nazis will benefit from not having to devote personnel to growing food and mining raw materials. This will increase the growth of their industrial base. Their level of technology would be comparable or superior to that of Kelowna. While this still lags behind that of Earth, it is enough to work with nuclear power and develop a basic understanding of any Earth or Goa’uld technology that they capture.

Destination: A Goa’uld World

It is assumed that the Nazis somehow survive their first encounters with Jaffa and establish some kind of base. Otherwise, their presence will be nothing more than a footnote.

A Goa’uld would only tolerate Nazis on his planet if he got some kind of advantage out of it. The Nazis may have convinced him that they can offer him technology or other services in exchange for limited freedom. They may also agree to become enforcers on the world that they are on, freeing Jaffa for duty on other worlds. This would involve an unusually open-minded Goa’uld, however.

Another possibility is that the Nazis went underground and are fighting the System Lord or minor Goa’uld ruling the planet. The Nazis are unlikely to have a large base or other resources. This makes maintaining their weapons and equipment a problem. They may have small manufacturing sites hidden underground, but they would not have the means to research more advanced technologies. An irony of this approach would be that the SGC could find itself on the same side as the Nazi descendants while fighting for the freedom of this planet. Afterwards, the Nazis might be regarded as heroes by the population and end up ruling them. This poses obvious issues for the player characters and their chain of command back on Earth. This is especially true if the Stargate program ever goes public.

Destination: An Asgard-Protected World

There is a degree of irony in this concept. The Nazis attempted to revive worship of the Norse gods, going so far as to depict WWII as Ragnarok. The pre-industrial humans under the protection of the Asgard generally give them a great deal of reverence. It is possible that the Nazis will incorporate the Asgard into their belief system after contacting such a culture. Such beliefs would be reinforced by the recorded projections that the Asgard use while interacting with those under their protection.

The Asgard themselves might be unaware of the arrival of Nazis on a protected planet. "Thor’s Hammer," "Thor’s Chariot," and "Red Sky" imply that the Asgard do not regularly monitor conditions on worlds covered by the Protected Planets Treaty. The Asgard have provided the means for the populations of protected worlds to contact them, but this requires knowledge that a pre-industrial culture would not possess.

On the other hand, the Asgard could know of the Nazis, but not be concerned about their presence on a protected planet. The Asgard may have been more active in the 1940s than they were during the 1990s and early 2000s. The Replicator threat may have been smaller or even non-existent at the time the Nazis made their escape through the Antarctic Stargate. This makes it more practical for the Asgard to check on the worlds under their protect ever now and again. A group of more technologically advanced humans would be obvious. Why not tell the SGC about the Nazis? The Asgard have been known not to volunteer information to the SGC for a variety of reasons. They not regard it as important or may not wish to see fighting break out between the SGC, the Nazis, and the native population.

How the Asgard react to the Nazis depends on their behavior. Nazis who abuse the population of a protected planet may be treated the same as a Goa’uld invasion force. A group of Nazis who treat the population as long-lost Aryan brothers and try to raise their technology level might be regarded as a useful loophole in the Protected Planets Treaty. However, the Asgard may try to change the Nazis into something less aggressive and bigoted. In any event, the Asgard will know exactly who they are dealing with due to their knowledge of Earth history.

It is likely that the Nazis will fare about as well on an Asgard-protected world as they would on an unclaimed planet with a pre-industrial civilization. They will be able to trade for food with the native population, but developing an industrial base will still take time. The Nazis are not likely to benefit from any Asgard technology they examine. The relative technology levels are too far apart for any useful reverse engineering to take place.


Encounters

How the SGC discovers the Nazis is mostly left as an exercise for the GM, but here are a few guidelines. Stepping out of the Stargate and into the middle of a Nazi-held planet is less than sporting, but will certainly be exciting for the players for as long as the adventure lasts.

The Nazis may have buried their Stargate after they arrived on their new home. This would prevent the SGC from discovering them and allows the GM to introduce them at a time of his choosing.

It is also possible that the Nazis will launch an exploration program once they have created a secure base of operations. Their explorations will be slow unless they find a source of valid Stargate coordinates. Random dialing would only turn up a valid set of coordinates after months or years of trying.

A Nazi equivalent to a SGC team would be quite capable. Nazi Germany developed weapons and other gear that still holds up fairly well in the early 21st Century. Their SG-44 assault rifle and MG-42 light machine gun are comparable to the AK-47 and M-60. Their main weakness would be the lack of advanced electronics. It is highly unlikely that the small industrial base available to the Nazis would be able to keep up with Earth in this regard. Any electronics that they do have would either be reverse-engineered from other sources or would be very crude by SGC standards. This will give the SGC advantages in nightvision, communications, and computing, but both sides will be a rough match in firepower. These advantages will degrade with time as the Nazis adapt and improvise improvements to their doctrine and gear.

Giving the Nazis a larger industrial base or access to advanced technology would produce a serious threat to SGC. The Nazis may end up using the equivalent of modern firearms and electronics supplemented by alien equipment. This makes them an even match for an SG team. The balance may tip towards the Nazis if they manage to develop hardware from experimental programs begun in Germany. The more advanced gear the Nazis have access to, the bigger their advantage.

Suppose they capture a SG team. They will interrogate them to determine the defenses around the SGC’s Stargate and develop a plan of attack. Such a plan would like revolve around using a captured GDO to get the SGC to open the iris. The next step is to toss a few dozen grenades through the Stargate into the SGC. This would be followed by sappers who would kill off the remaining USAF Security teams in the Gate Room. The sappers would then use explosives to destroy the Gate Room doors. Meanwhile, SS troops would be coming in through the Stargate and preparing to rush into the base. Their first objective would be to secure control of the Stargate dialing computer. Once that is secure, they can attack the rest of Cheyenne Mountain and establish a secure base of operations on Earth.

And you thought Anubis was scary.


References

Dirty Little Secrets of World War II by James Dunnigan and Albert Nofi (Quill, ISBN 0-688-12288-4). Filled with little known information about WWII.

Gateworld.net (www.gateworld.net). Reviews, episode guides, and various facts about Stargate.

GURPS: WWII: Weird War II by Kenneth Hite with William Stoddard (Steve Jackson Games, ISBN 1-55634-661-1). The most unusual aspects of WWII in a format useful for gaming.

Suppressed Transmission the First Broadcast by Kenneth Hite (Steve Jackson Games, ISBN 1-55634-423-6). Plenty of campaign ideas, adventure seeds, and other gaming weirdness.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Painting By Numbers - Reaper Bones Well of Chaos

Just an innocent looking well.

This is the Well of Chaos (77136), one of many miniatures I received as a reward for backing the first Reaper Bones Kickstarter. The Well of Chaos represents some kind of font holding holy or unholy water from some god, goddess, or weird alien thing worshiped by hooded cultists. Any resemblance to an ornate toilet belonging to somebody with more money than sense is purely in the eye of the viewer.

As with my previous attempts to work with Reaper Bones plastic, I decided to experiment with an alternate technique for priming and painting this piece. A post on the Reaper forums titled "The First Coat is the Difference" recommended using FolkArt's Glass and Tile Medium as a primer after cleaning the miniature. The main issue with Glass and Tile Medium is that it is completely clear. It is very hard to tell if the miniature is completely coated while applying the Medium. The solution is to mix the Medium with acrylic paint to make it opaque. Any color will do, but I used black paint to allow the mix to act as both primer and a base coat.

Over the black base coat went a layer of dark gray on the stone parts of the well. I was careful not to completely cover the base coat to bring out the cracks in the stone. A layer of brown went on the parts of the well I was planning on painting gold. Brown works well under gold - it adds a little depth since metallic paints are sometimes translucent and the two colors do not contrast or "fight" with each other.

Light gray was used to highlight the stone parts. A layer of metallic gold went on the metal parts.

A purple wash was applied to the stone parts to convey an otherworldly aspect to the well. Descriptions of strange statues in fantasy sometimes note an odd hue to the material used to make them.

Totally not suspicious. Just walk right up and get a drink!

The inside of the font was painted blue to convey depth. A small amount of Woodland Scenics Realistic Water was used to produce a shiny surface. I was originally going to use a thinner layer of Realistic Water, but the process of poring it proved a little trickier than I expected. Using Realistic Water was also an experiment on my part. I had no previous experience with the stuff and I have a future project that may need it.

Overall, I am pleased with how the Well and how it turned out. Some of the detail on the miniature could be sharper, especially in the areas depicting metal pieces. Using FolkArt's Glass and Tile Medium resulted in a durable surface that holds paint well. Mixing the Medium with a little paint allowed me to combine the priming and base coating steps. This is definitely the way I'm planning on preparing the vast numbers of Reaper Bones miniatures remaining in my collection.