Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Wargame Wednesday - Storming the Gap: World at War 85


I haven't played a lot of tabletop Cold War era games. I think the only other land combat one I own is Last Battle from GDW which was closely tied to Twilight 2000 but it used all the latest Cold War-era equipment. I do have the Fleet series games from Victory Games and those were great but not at all focused on the landward side of things. There's Twilight Struggle of course but it's not exactly a traditional hex and counter type conflict simulation. There have been various computer and miniature games in this area over the years ( like the old "something 1985" series from SSI) but if we're talking strictly about board wargames this set is a little new for me.

Yeah, that's the one I had!

There were two main reasons to start digging in  to this particular game. First - the scale and the period are both of interest. As mentioned I realized this period was a bit of a gap in my experience and in my collection so I started looking at Cold War-era games. There are a fair number of options but this one chooses a specific year so we know what was definitely available and what might have been rushed into service or available in prototype form. That's a nice touch for an otherwise speculative game. 

It's also a platoon-level game which means the counters represent tank and infantry platoons which is the same scale Panzerblitz and Panzer Leader used way back when. This gives it a nice tactical feel that allows for differences between different types of equipment (like an Abrams vs. a Leopard 2 vs. a T-72) without needing to worry about details like facing and front/side/rear/top armor values. I have miniatures and some computer games for extreme detail and there is always MBT (from Avalon Hill and now GMT) if I want that. So this slightly larger view of things still feels close but should not bog down in minutia. 

Additionally this is a Lock 'N Load game which means it should be very well supported. I do not have any of their other games but they publish multiple lines of well-regarded games from Nations at War (WW2 platoon-level) to Lock N' Load Tactical  - Modern and WW2 lines - for that up-close scale of game. Their games look great, have been around for a few years now, and seem to be pretty widely played. 

There is a fair amount of stuff out for it now.

Finally the rules used in this game are refreshingly different - there is no CRT, for example. The numbers you need are right there on the counter and tell you either how many dice to roll for an attack or what you need to roll on one to succeed with whatever you are doing. Now the counters are a little busy and all of those colors and shapes and superscripts/subscripts mean something so I can see it taking a little while to learn all of the details but I appreciate the drive to put everything you need right out there on the board.

The other interesting rules element is the way it uses cards. It is similar to a card-driven game like C&C Ancients but the deck tells you which specific unit to activate, not what actions you can take - this is a huge difference if you've played any of the C&C games. There are cards for each formation in a scenario plus a few others might be added in like close air support or electronic warfare to represent the almost random appearance of certain assets. Also, you will run through the entire deck until the -second- "end operations" card is drawn which means this phase is over for the turn and the deck will be reshuffled for the next turn. This means that while you may not get to activate all of your units (like you would in a more traditional non-card-driven game) you will likely be able to do more in a turn than in a C&C turn so less of your army will feel like it's sitting there doing nothing. 

Finally there is a lot of detail in the game - missiles, reactive armor, helicopters, minefields, and more. It's all handled in a pretty intuitive way once you get the basics of the system so I don't feel like it's missing anything significant. This is a second edition of a prior game line so they had a few years to work out the kinks and it shows. 

Almost hilariously there is an associated novel line set in this ... universe(?) ... as well, so if you're missing your Team Yankee or Tom Clancy novels here's an outlet. I mean, RPG's generating books is old hat but this is a hex and counter board wargame ... well, OK ... and yes, I will probably check out the first one at least just to see what it's about. 

So I am looking forward to getting my hands dirty with this one - I'll post about it after I have some more actual play experience to share. 

Monday, November 6, 2023

Thoughts on Ascendant


Ascendant launched in January of 2022 and apparently did pretty well as they just recently did a Kickstarter for a new Platinum edition which is a pretty quick turnaround for a new edition of a game. I saw the KS and realized I hadn't looked at the existing version so I thought I ought to and now I finally have. 

It's a softcover book that is 496 pages long - it's a hefty tome though Hero 5th Revised is about 590, and Pathfinder 2E Core was over 630, so it's not the absolute biggest - but it's hefty. It's mostly black and white text but it does have some illustrations here and there and it does use color - title bars are done in blue while examples and specific headers are done in red so there is some thought put into the layout. There are section tabs on the edges of the pages so I do like the effort that went into organizing these rules.

The mechanics roughly described are sort of what could happen if you took the Hero system and mixed it with DC Heroes with a dash of Marvel Super Heroes. yes, it's a bit of an 80's greatest hits kind of thing. In their own words:


If we have succeeded, it is because we stand on the shoulders of giants. Two particular giants deserve special acclaim: Jeff Grubb, the designer of TSR’s 1984 RPG Marvel Super Heroes; and Greg Gorden, designer of Mayfair Game’s 1985 RPG DC Heroes. Grubb’s Marvel Super Heroes RPG (sometimes called the FASERIP system) was our inspiration for the color-coded Challenge Action Resolution Table, which enables any and all actions within the game to be resolved with a roll of 1d100. Meanwhile, Gorden’s DC Heroes RPG (sometimes called the MEGS system) was our inspiration for the logarithmic mathematics that power our physics- based design. We have sought to synthesize what was best about these two games into one cohesive system that surpasses both in robustness, comprehensiveness, and verisimilitude. Whether we have, in fact, succeeded is for you to judge.

The hero similarities are my own take on it. Characters have six Primary Attributes - Might, Agility, Valor, etc. - and then they also have ten Secondary Attributes which cover everything from height and Weight to Run Speed to Income, Reputation, Passive Spotting Range, and Passive Listening Range. Then you also have two Variable Attributes - Health (physical damage capacity)  and Determination (mental damage capacity). 

That's before we get into Skills and Powers. In my eyes it's starting to look like a Hero character sheet already.

Now the DC piece comes in with "Supermetric Points" or SPs. Everything is measured in SPs - distance, speed, time, weight, density, volume, area, money, information, and fame. There is a baseline quantity of each of these that is SP 0 and then each additional point doubles the previous quantity. So a distance of SP0 is 5 feet while SP5 distance is 160 feet. There is a whole section of charts that list values/examples for all of those categories from 0-25 SPs plus notes on how to manipulate them - you can't just add them together for example. Now a lot of games since DC Heroes have used ratings like this (Mutants and Masterminds and ICONS among others) but they are hardwired in to this system even more explicitly - everything a character has or does is rated on this scale - a Might of 6 means you can pick up 1600 lbs or a Horse, for example. The normal human max is 5 by the way.

There are a ton of up-front definitions of other things too like Objects, the different type of Actions one can take, and how to resolve tasks with Challenge Checks. It's not that any one of these things is particularly complex it's that there are so many of these things right at the beginning of the rules. I go back and forth with RPGs on what should be covered first - task resolution or character creation? But there is nothing in this section that really gets me excited about playing or running this game. That said, here on page 53 we do get to see how the system works:


Once the AV and DV have been determined, the DV is subtracted from the AV to yield the Resolution Value (RV). Next, consult the Challenge Action Resolution Table (CHART). The CHART is divided into seven columns and thirteen rows (-6 to 6). Find the row matching the character’s RV in one of the two RV Columns on the left-hand side of the table. If the character is making an Attack or certain other interactive actions, it is making an Attack Check and uses the RV column labeled RV (Attack). If the character is attempting any other type of Challenge, it uses the RV column labeled RV (Other). The player or GM controlling the character then rolls 1d100 and finds the column matching the number they rolled. The color of that column is the Color Result of the Challenge Check.

That's a lot to chew on but the chart does make it easier to grasp:

For example punching someone is Valor vs. Valor. So you compare that rating,  find the difference, roll percentiles, and look at your result above. White is a fail, Green is typically a success, and the other colors indicate better and better results with some outcomes requiring a specific color minimum - that's the MSH influence. 

There are Hero Points that let you break the normal rules - every superhero game should have them  and this one does. 

Character creation uses a point build system and there are Power Limits that cap how much can be spent on any given power though there are several pages spent breaking down different kinds of limits here and both the GM and the players are going to have to look this part over fairly carefully. 

There is a lengthy powers section that looks like it covers what most people will need. 

There is an entire chapter devoted to "Objects" which covers gadgets, devices, inventions ... vehicles in this system are "crewed objects" which cracks me up for some reason. This also gets us winning section headers as "sub-object launch capability" which seems like it could get pretty deep if you model an aircraft carrier that launches attack jets which can launch missiles which might have have sub-munitions of their own in each missile. No I'm not going to try and build that right now. 

After this we get into the gear section - excuse me, the "object catalog" which covers everything from a tactical flashlight to guns to drugs to nuclear weapons. There is a pretty thorough selection of vehicles here including the aircraft carrier and jets mentioned above - missiles are in the previous part. There is also this gem of a section:

I mean .. that covers a lot, right? This is really the "things the Brick wants to throw at someone" section and I love that this is here.

There is a chapter devoted to "Movement & Travelling". It's 13 pages long and full of formulas and charts and ... this is just how this game is going to go alright? It does say "physics simulator" up front and it is not kidding.

There is a "Forensic Site Complexity" table. I am not kidding. This covers a range of sizes from "Toilet Stall" 0 SPs to "St. Thomas Island" at 25 SPs.

The game does have rules for everything from social interactions and acquiring fans to managing money to learning and memorizing information to interrogating/interviewing witnesses ... some of that I can appreciate but I have to say a lot of it just seems like needless over-quantification, especially in a superhero game. The Saving the Day section has some very cool and certainly thematic ideas - asteroid strikes, avalanches, etc. but then we get to "Disease Outbreak" which spends 7 pages breaking down all the steps of identifying, containing, and treating various diseases. I have to say in 40 years of playing and running RPGs, including superhero RPG's, I have never need this level of detail for handling a disease outbreak. Maybe someone has ... but not me. Not even in Twilight 2000 where disease is probably at its most dangerous as there is no magic, no superpowers, and not much medicine left. So this to me seems like something one would put in a specific adventure or campaign supplement that dealt with a disease outbreak as a major challenge - not part of a core rulebook for playing costumed heroes. 

The Gamemastering section wraps up the book and has my personal required elements of lots of normal NPC types, animals,  heroes, villains, and some guidance on how to organize a campaign. 

So what does it all boil down to? Well, I would have been a lot more interested in this kind of system 20-odd years ago. It is very thorough - if that's what you are looking for it's probably the most thorough superhero RPG I have encountered. They did mention "comprehensive" in that inspiration section up above and they were not kidding. But ... for me ... I just don't need multiple pages and tables for every problem a team might encounter. I like the way the main Chart system works but the overhead to get there with the SPs and the RVs and all of the details just kills it for me. In the universe of Supers RPGs I don't know where it would win out enough for me to earn some table-time. There are some things that feel like odd disconnects to me:

  • It cites TSR Marvel as an influence but other than the color-coded results on the table I don't see it. MSH was very playable and did not get bogged down in details yet here the whole game is built on details. It doesn't feel FASERIP-y at all. Ease and speed of play does not seem to have been a primary concern here.
  • It cites being a Physics-based game as opposed to Effects-based (Hero) or Descriptor-based (Marvel Heroic Roleplaying) but comic book physics are notoriously flexible and variable and it just seems like an odd thing to base a comic-book game on. Superpowers are not usually defined with meticulous precision in comic books or shows or movies yet that's what this game is built around. It doesn't really feel right to me. 
  • The general feeling of "overkill" in so many areas. The disease section is a good example. In a campaign I was running most of this would be happening offscreen while the heroes gathered samples, carried people to safety, maybe dealt with some quarantine issues, and then helped deliver the cure. It would be about how the player characters reacted to the situation, not a procedural exercise in how the world works through it all. It's just a difference in approach and what I feel is important to a game versus what the designers here saw as important. 
  • Also (and Hero has a touch of this as well) there is a lot of jargon in this system and I worry that players are going to be spouting numbers and ratings and formulas in play more than just doing superhero stuff. Thirteen pages on movement alone ... I just feel like you're going to hear "He's 8 SPs tall" a lot more than "He's the size of a skyscraper!"  - the constant need to translate feels like it could interfere with the flow. Maybe with time this would fade but looking at it as a new system it's a concern. 
So it's not a game I am likely to run anytime soon. Saying that I would still consider playing it if one of my crew had a burning desire to run it. It would be an interesting experience and might change some of my feelings about it but I do not think that's likely to happen. For now, it goes on the shelf and sticks in the back of my  mind as something to re-examine down the road.