Friday, May 4, 2012

40K Friday: The Second-Coolest Weapon Ever

I think we can all agree that the coolest weapon ever is the lightsaber, right? OK then.

The second-coolest weapon ever, is the chainsword. It's the weapon that sealed he deal for me when it came to Warhammer 40,000.

This was actually an ad in Dragon magazine in June of 1988 that had the complete up-to-date weapons chart for the game. Regrettably it's been scanned at too low a resolution to read the tiny print but among the many interesting weapon names is the Chainsword, and the mere concept of the weapon with that name pretty much pulled me in. I had already picked up some of the miniatures because they looked cool and I had seen a game locally, but this pushed me over the edge.

Unlike the lightsaber, it doesn't really have a defensive quality - you're not going to be deflecting blaster shots with it, at least not deliberately. But it does have a visceral quality that 'sabers lack. You sweep a lightsaber past someone and they may not even realize their arm is off. A chainsword leaves no such confusion - they will know it, their nearby companions will know it, and everyone within a hundred feet will know it, thanks to the motorized ripping sound and the shower of gore that goes with it.

 Now it's not a stealthy weapon given the noise it emits when used. Then again, lightsabers aren't either, with that whole glowing thing. Let's face it, when it comes to stealthiness, the coolest weapons rarely care - they want you to know what's coming!

There are more powerful weapons in the 40K universe, but I think the humble chainsword is the coolest one of all.

I rarely post videos but this one pretty much covers everything that needs to be covered on the subject. Give it a second, it's worth it.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Halls of Undermountain 4E - A Review

This is actually pretty good and I'm a little surprised - but happily so!

Let me tell you about my personal relationship with Undermountain:

The first one: I thought it was awesome - look at those poster maps! This was the first time I ever saw poster-sized dungeon maps and the mind reeled at the potential - one giant dungeon ... multiple groups ... multiple campaigns! Sure I had read about Greyhawk and such but hearing or reading about it and seeing the maps on the table are two very different experiences. I was later disappointed to find out that the books only covered parts of the dungeon - I thought that they should cover all of it and that anything less was a failure to reach the concept's potential. Still, publishing giant dungeon maps with at least overview notes on what they contained was a step farther than we had seen up until then. I still thought of it as somewhat failing to live up to its promise though.

There were more expansions, and they left a similar sensation of reach exceeding grasp. I have most of them, have for many years, and yet have never run an Undermountain campaign - or a Waterdeep game for that matter.

They just keep coming ...

I considered using Waterdeep/Undermountain for one of my 4E games but we ended up going in a different direction. That's one reason I'm fairly familiar with it, because I was looking through the original set just last year in one of my Megadungeon-obsessed phases. It passed, and the Apprentices are playing Temple of Elemental Evil now, heh.

That's not the last one...

On to this book:

  1. Giant Dungeon Poster Map Like the Original: Check
  2. Poster-Sized Encounter Maps like Most 4E Adventures: Check
  3. Notes on Effects of the Spellplague: Check
  4. Watered-down overview of levels with short weak adventures thrown in like the original - not exactly
First, the book only really covers the first level of Undermountain. That's not a harsh "only" though because a bunch of the book is taken up by the 80 room descriptions and I don't mean "10 - Empty Room" and "27 - 6 orcs, Hp 5,5,4,4,3,2, 6 gp each" but a DM description, flavor text, and notes on traps, features, monsters, and magic items (if any) for each. Within these descriptions are 3 separate adventures for character levels 1-5, new monsters, new traps, and new magic items. They do not do the standard 4E 2-page encounter presentation but in this case it's just fine with me.

You can tell it's big because it's really really small ... right?
Beyond this core there are 3 d100 tables for Room Purpose, Natural Room features, and Magical Room features. There is a wandering monster table for the first dungeon level. There are notes on the various ways to enter the dungeon and notes on some NPC's and why they might ask or hire the party to do so. In other words, it's a megadungeon starter kit! In a 4E book no less!

I'm convinced I could run a 4E megadungeon campaign now with little actual work on my part. Starting with this book and adding in Dungeon Delve and the dungeon sections of the various published WOTC adventures (Pyramid of Shadows anyone? Thunderspire Labyrinth?) and Essentials boxed sets and I could easily put together 10 levels of big dungeon and have some nifty poster maps to use without straining myself at all. Think of it as a Greatest Hits compilation of 4E adventures.

It's called "milking the brand" folks

So who would get the most out of this book? Someone starting a new 4E campaign - start your party at 1st level and let them jump right in! After all, 4E characters are so much more powerful that this old dungeon should be a piece of cake, right? Since it sits right next to a huge city you can mix in some of the political stuff as needed or for a change of pace and then get back to the kicking in the doors and the taking of the gold pieces that so many of us seek!

Someone already running a high Heroic or Paragon or Epic campaign is not going to get a lot of direct use out of it, but it's still a nice example/backup resource to  have on the shelf.

Never actually played this one

There is one thing that makes me see a little of the "failed potential" theme even here: Imagine if this had come out in Year 1 of 4E. Then imagine in Year 2 we got "Caverns of Undermountain" with another 80-100 rooms and a level or two for slightly higher levels.  The in Year 3 we see "Fiery Depths of Undermountain" and a similar amount of content. How great could that have been? I'm glad we got this one at all, even late in the apparent lifespan of 4E, and it is a very good book. I'll take it, and likely use it sooner or later, but it would have been that much better though if it had been volume one of a new series. 

Ah well, perhaps a project for sometime down the road. Maybe some kind of collaborative project with stat translations for multiple editions. Something to ponder.

Legendary! The Bad Kind!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

An Ode to the Battlemat

Yes, the Battlemat - humble canvas of our dreams & nightmares, the gridded arena of life and death for our imaginary creations, transmitter of our fantastic visions - take a moment and consider it's import.

Tomb of Spells!
In my case the mini's came first - one of Grenadier's "Adventurers" sets and the Tomb of Spells. Before that we used boardgame tokens (sorry, Sorry), Stratego pieces (look I'm a Colonel), and Chess pieces, not to mention the army-men style knights and the plastic dinosaurs pressed into duty in those early days. Back then we mainly used them to show marching order - front line, second line, back line, all the precision of the  early Roman army reproduced unwittingly -  because we didn't have a thing to move them around on. After all, this was a game of the imagination - we didn't need a board! We didn't want one! I think in one game we actually used the Stratego board for a wilderness encounter, but it was a one-time thing that was not attempted again for a while.

The first tactical encounter map ...
Then, somewhere in the mid to late 80's I started playing with a new group and they used this amazing thing that had squares and could be erased and redrawn infinitely with overhead pens! It was a revelation! Sure, I had seen the Chessex ads in Dragon but it had never registered with me just how transformative a single device like this could be - now we could actually move our figures around, adjusting to the situation as it developed, and so could the DM! The variable tyranny of the over-volumed fireball and the rebounding lightning bolt was ended forever as distances could now be clearly worked out! A new form of point-whoring optimization became available as being just exactly the right distance from something became much more feasible. Also, mapping became a lot simpler and more accurate as the agonizing over exact distances and the shuffling of graph paper around the table dropped away. Within a month every group I was a part of had at least one 'mat. Office supply stores suddenly became interesting as that's where we could find the widest selection of pens. A standard had been established and would rule unchallenged for years.

The really good ones come with hexgrids too - for Champions! and maybe GURPS too ...
Then an interloper appeared - dungeon tiles! They existed back in the 80's but no one I knew used them and the ones I saw were not terribly impressive, being too light and thin to stay put when moved upon. I actually had experimented with Warhammer Quest tiles and Space Hulk tiles a few times in the 90's, to no lasting effect. During the time of D&D 3rd Edition though, and continuing into 4th, this was an organized effort previously unseen. Multiple companies, multiple sets, some heavy cardboard, some plastic, some poster maps, some the same old thin card we had seen and discarded before, some downloadable and printable. I tried some of them and realized something:

I am not a tiles kind of guy.

Well I suppose this does solve some problems, and I'm betting it's cheap.

I don't think ill of them, but I find they feel very limiting to me. I never seem to have the right set of shapes or the right set of corridors or stairs or a fountain or a river of lava or whatever. I find that my map designs start to hew to what tiles I have. With a battlemat I can draw whatever I want and I can do it as needed. With tiles I need to sort pieces out ahead of time and keep them organized or it becomes rather time consuming. In play it's also difficult to reveal part of a room or part of a hallway - you have to do the whole thing. When I play a published adventure it is unlikely that the author was concerned with tile selection and lord forbid that it be a set of natural caverns with irregular shapes! It turns into a struggle to combine the available tiles into something resembling the adventure map, a problem I never have with a vinyl mat and markers. Plus they roll up for transport, instead of requiring a box, or several boxes.

I do like poster maps for big set-piece encounters. D&D 4E adventures have been especially nifty in this regard.

The one game I have enjoyed using tiles is Star Wars - quite a bit of a typical adventure takes place indoors - starships, bases, buildings, tunnels - so that the gray-toned Galaxy Tiles set works really well. Until the adventurers land on a remote forest planet, and then the mats come out.

Yep, that works

I think the printable dungeon tiles do have a future - if I can select and print my own tiles to need on regular paper, then I at least feel less limited when making my own adventure maps. Published ones can still be a problem, but this goes a long way. I realize that one could scan and copy existing tiles too, but it can be a little tricky to use the heavy thick card ones and paper versions of the same at the same time. Here's a good example.

Mapping programs that let you design maps and then print them to a one inch grid are very cool too, but I've never had the drive to sit down and learn how to use them and the cost of printing a sizable map is not zero either. With a battlemet I can spend 20-30-40$ and get some pens and be good for a decade or more, the same as a single ink cartridge that will only last through a few dungeon levels at most. Heck, you can make your own in various ways at very little cost. Dundjinni seems to get it done pretty well though I have only dabbled with it.

Certainly there are those who scoff at the very idea of the mat. For some mini's and a mat are a budget issue and I get that. For others you sometimes get the "we don't play with miniatures" sneer. That's fine - I do, most of the time. I've run sessions of older editions of D&D without it and I don't use one for ICONS or Marvel Heroic, but you can bet that when the 12d6 Energy Blasts start flying the hexgrid mat is out, and when the PGMP-12 is warming up there's a grid on the table too. There are games where a 'mat is not necessary but in others I enjoy the game a great deal more when it's part of the scene.

The battle rages - and everyone knows where they are!
So I'm pretty happy with my battlemats. I rank them right up there with dice as "things I need for a typical RPG night". I expect I'll be using one until we all get those nifty tabletop hologram generators at home, and even then I'll bust one out on occasion to do an old school game with the grandkids so I can educate them properly - "When I started playing we had to DRAW our dungeons ... or build them ... out of ... cardboard or legos or something ... we didn't have an iTable to do it FOR us like we were Tony Stark or something ... it was ART and we liked it that way ... zzzzzzz"

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Overreaction Tuesday

Details on the playtest format here. Short version: Original 4 classes, original 4 races, pregen characters to start - it's like Basic all over again! All I can really say at this point is that I will be giving it a whirl in some fashion, probably with the Apprentices at least. If nothing else, I want to be able to complain honestly.

Also there we have notes on the fighter. The high points:
  • The Fighter Is the Best at . . . Fighting! - Good. I never liked the over-emphasis on the "tank" aspect of the class that we saw in 4E. I got over it but it's nice to see offense get some attention here.
  • The Fighter Exists in a World of Myth, Fantasy, and Legend - Finally someone says it! What your brother's friend could do at an SCA event with a foam sword is no more relevant to Fighter discussions than what your sister's magician friend can do with a hat is to Wizard discussions - neither is limited by "reality". 
  • A High-Level Fighter and a High-Level Wizard Are Equal - As it should be and as it finally was in 4E. I'm glad to see this one sticking around. I would expect a wizard to be able to do all kinds of interesting things that a fighter can't do, like open doors to other planes or make things invisible, but he shouldn't be better at killing things than a fighter! Yes, that's largely a game balance thing and I would make no apologies for it.

So far this sounds a lot better than the Cleric talk last week.

There's some other stuff about races that is nothing new so I leave that to an exercise to the reader to discover independently.

I think my lack of care about races and some of this stuff is that I'm going to do what I want in that area regardless of how it's presented in the rules. Races are setting-dependent, not rules-dependent - and if they aren't they should be. With a multitude of editions of D&D available, not to mention Fantasy Hero (3 editions of that sit on my shelf too, how the time flies) and books like GURPS Fantasy Folk, I don't lack for resources. I'm probably going to be running 4E as the main game for quite a while anyway so I'm not sure that Next's approach matters all that much in a practical sense either.