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Sunday, 29 January 2017

5e D&D - The Chronicles of the Backbiters: The Eye of Death

Now as a preamble to this instalment I should talk about the party's first adventure - The Master's Vault. This concludes with them getting into the vault, having a showdown with a necromancer and some skeletons, and learning that there erstwhile teacher was actually a different character who had found an artefact called "The Eye of Death". They had a journal which described the Eye's location and how to destroy it, together with a Pearl of Power and a magical longsword.

Now thinking long-term, I knew the party would be doing The Hoard of the Dragon Queen next, and after that probably Rise of Tiamat. They would then be in a position to do an epic Lord of the Rings style quest to destroy this evil artefact. Also, rather than introducing another faction, I had the necromancer at the end of the adventure be part of the Cult of the Dragon, interested in the Eye to help create their undead Dracoliches.
So I created a powerful evil artefact, and rather than have it as another quest in the future, decided that it should replace the Pearl they had found with the journal - the Eye appearing to be such until activated (the artefact needed attunement to use as a Pearl of Power, at which point the character would lose weight at the rate of 1lb/day until they reached their racial minimum. They have bloodthirsty thoughts and enjoy watching things die, and their dreams are full of nightmares about death. It also confounds the bearer as to any clues about it and its method of destruction).

After the character had personally killed 50hp worth of creatures, the Eye enters its first level of activation, and the character can cast the Chill Touch cantrip, favouring it over other methods of attack - the Eye would grow to the size of a large rounded grape, and the character would be aware of this power and become secretive about the item - at this point the character cannot be released from the item by anything short of a Greater Restoration. They gain immunity from Necrotic damage, their touch kills normal plant life and those that stay within 100' of them for 24h or more risk contracting Sewer Plague....

In addition, the Eye requires death constantly, and the bearer is unable to benefit from hit dice, short or long rests unless they have killed (something with a CR, not just a spider or an insect - I know how player's minds work!) within the last 24h. They are obsessed with killing, so much so that their Charisma is lowered by 2 and their Wisdom by 1 whilst they possess the artefact. Their alignment also starts to slide towards Neutral Evil.

Let me now add that the character who picked up both the journal and the Pearl was Darrien - the halfling Bard...this meant he couldn't read the journal (as the Eye confounds its bearer as to its origins etc), so he reported it was written in some sort of code - I was imagining parallels to The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings at this point - one of the great joys of being a DM are these little secrets as they unfold!

ooo o o o OOO o o o ooo

So, preamble done, the last time the party had been beaten by the Cult after seriously depleting their human followers left in the cave system. Frulam had escaped off North to warn Rezmir of the threat, leaving Landregosa to watch over the eggs - a task he felt more than capable of doing having met the party before and hardly being troubled with their advances.

The party had a bit of internal reflection at this point, and talked about planning more and being less impulsive. This half worked on their re-entry to the caves, where the Dragonclaw guards had been replaced by slightly less capable kobolds, who were stealthily eliminated. The party explored to find the bodies of cultists gone, but little else changed, and so went through the mushroom forest - at which point their discipline started to break down, and they proved that wet surfaces and climbing were not their strong point (this was also historically true, with falls being more dangerous in their past than monsters!)

Now I had prepared for the next part with some more 3D printing...they were entering a cave full of bats and piercers (I had replaced the Stirges in the book for these as I felt they tied in with the Roper later on, plus I felt Stirges would attack cult members travelling through here). It turned out they were also easy to print...and here they are.

The party ended up with a few piercers in the back, but some curing later and they got through this, though they managed to lose the Wizard in the process. It was at this point when Darrien reached the 50hp threshold for pushing the Eye of Death into its first level of activation. Anyway, Kylantha the wizard had become disoriented in the swarms of bats flying around in the cave, and ended up going into the foul-smelling Troglodyte area. I could have used Lizardmen for these, but I wanted the Troglodytes to be different, so I ended up printing a bunch of these too. Kylantha cast Thunderwave at them, the noise disturbing the bats again and bringing Sirethnis, Alonna and Lander to go looking for her and bring her back.

Landregosa finally met his end after an epic battle which Landregosa himself ended up doing a lot of damage to kobolds and a guard drake, being the recipient of a Crown of Madness cast by the Warlock Uro. This meant that by the time he was really into fighting the party he was already somewhat down and didn't have the support he should have had. He was finally finished off with a Spiritual Weapon blow from Lander. The party then spent some time smashing his head with a maul and then cutting it off, just to be sure! They weren't out of the woods, however, since the remaining kobolds and beserkers did a substantial amount of damage - to the point where they needed a short rest in the reeking kobold barracks.

This rest gave them enough to go exploring again, and they found the kobolds guarding the eggs (after being glued and burnt by their grenades), followed by the guard drakes and finally the roper - which the party named "Mighty Mike". After some dialogue and some meat trading, the party avoided combat with this creature, which I had used a Reaper mini for that I already owned previously.

The dragon eggs were all extracted and smashed, and other than getting some acid damage from the chest trap in the dragon temple and some poison from the trapped meat chamber curtain, the party did little more before a lengthy debate on what to do next - chase after the cult immediately or go back to Greenest to report and restock. Eventually they decided on the latter course, and went back to see Leosin and Governor Nighthill. Of course Leosin had already gone, and Nighthill equipped them with horses to ride up to Elturel.

On the way to Elturel, the party was ambushed during the night by orcs, including an Orog and Eye of Grummsh from Othrod's old clan. The attack was not only rebuffed, but completely slaughtered. Still, I had no doubt the figures I had bought for the purpose would be used for other fights!

At this point various members of the party started falling ill - something the party traced back to their resting in the filthy kobold barracks back at the cave system. Lesser Restoration seemed to do the trick, however, and remove the effects. This set them up to meet Leosin and Onthar, and give them the opportunity to join the Harpers, or the Order of the Gauntlet. Some joined both organisations, some joined none, so the party had a real mix of outlooks - a good thing overall I felt.

Come the morning they were due to set off, some of the characters were again ill, and they found that Othrod's horse had been killed in the night - something he was very unhappy about and made something of a scene outside the stables about. Of course this was actually Darrien's doing, he killed the horse in the night to sate his bloodlust - driven by the Eye.

Nevertheless, the party set off to Baldur's Gate by boat, and in an attempt to insulate themselves from further disease they separated into infected and non-infected groups, taking the prow and stern. Mid journey they heard cries for help, and decamped in rowboats into the shallow waters of a swamp to investigate, only to find a fair maiden chained to a rock, prisoner of three ogres and their pet crocodile.The maiden was another purchase (at the same time as the orcs), whereas the monsters I had printed

The party dealt with this, but the highlight was Thor being pulled from his rowboat by the crocodile, and Uro casting Witch Bolt, which fried both crocodile and Thor over several rounds. During this time Thor had been unable to break the crocodile's grapple, and afterwards was unable to climb back into the boat, even with lander's help. Eventually Lander and Uro managed to pull his still-smoking, sodden form out of the water, but it did become something of the focal point for the fight!

The Ogres put up a fair fight, including one who was casting Vicious Mockery on various party members. in the end, however, brute force and ignorance couldn't delay their despatch, and the maiden managed to set herself free from the shackles during the fight. She then told the party how her party was ambushed and killed as she was on her way to Elturel, but she'd be grateful of carriage back to her father in Baldur's Gate to get more guards to pick up the two cases of exquisite jade figurines she was taking as a gift. The party offered to take the statues too, but she refused, saying there was no point taking them back just to haul them out here again.

That night, back on the boat during the first watch, Uro cast Vicious Mockery on Othrod. Despite denying it, he did it again, and Othrod was prepared to fight - this woke others, including Darrien, who also cast Vicious Mockery on the half-orc. Sensing something wasn't right, Sirethnis stepped in, saying this was very suspicious when they'd just picked up a passenger. The maiden was confronted and she tore into Sirethnis, revealing her true identity as a Green hag. she had been using her natural abilities to cast the cantrip, imitate others and cast her voice to cause the mayhem. A fight ensued, but she turned invisible and jumped off the boat.

Next day, as they approached Baldur's Gate, a one figure was spotted on some rocks ahead. She cried out and Fireballed the was Myrdinn, their former colleague and friend, who blamed them all for her brothers death. After a couple of long-range Fireballs she vanished, leaving the party shaken and bemused. They were also somewhat down in cleric and druid spells as the cycle of infection each morning was countered by Lander and Thor's Lesser Restorations, leaving their spell slots depleted.

Finally they arrived at Baldur's Gate, their boat somewhat burnt and slightly depressed - they had learned of an old friend that was a new enemy, couldn't seem to shake the cycle of infection they'd picked up and still had a long way to go to track the Cult. What would Baldur's Gate - the largest city in Faerun - bring them?

Saturday, 28 January 2017

5e D&D - The Chronicles of the Backbiters: Origins and the Cult of the Dragon

Last entry I introduced our D&D group - the Backbiters...I haven't told you why they got that name. It didn't come out straight away, but really it comes from a bit of a house ruling on critical failures.

I allow my group to do chancy stuff - firing at enemies engaged or obscured by other characters - I impose an AC penalty depending on the amount of cover I judge them to get dependent on what's in the way. It's cinematic to have the Rogue fire at an enemy between the legs of a fighter, or the Warlock to get an Eldritch Blast off against someone through a crowd. 

With all the opportunity for glory, however, comes the opportunity for failure. Critical failures in our group mean either dropping your currently equipped weapon, or (if in combat or doing something risky as above) possibly hitting one of your friends...

This has created some very fun moments - including Sirethnis (who specialises in dual-weapon fighting) throwing first one of her weapons down in front of a foe, then the other....then reaching for another and throwing that down as well (three critical failures in as many rolls!). It's led to a lot of arrows ending up in the backs of fighters, and a fair few spells going awry too - including a Witch Bolt that after a critical failure could have hit Darrien the I had the roll made...critical success! There are many examples - probably many more than should be statistically the point that the party is almost as dangerous to itself as my minions are...hence the Backbiters. At least they heal each other afterwards.

Anyway, a couple of pivotal figures I needed in the Hoard of the Dragon Queen were Frulam Mondath and Landregosa Cyanwrath (which is a great name, by the way!). These two characters needed setting up at the start of the campaign, and they would end up chasing Frulam half way across the Sword Coast! Anyway, one of the figures I had was holding a polearm and had a tabbard, so I figured they'd do...Frulam didn't look very female anyway!

Landregosa on the other hand was more difficult. In the end I took an old Warhammer Chaos warrior and replaced the head with that of a Lizardman, using green stuff to bridge the gaps. After a new sword, he just needed a paint job to be able to harass the characters, and beat Sirethnis in 1-2-1 combat at the end of Episode 1, just to cement her hatred of the Cult!

After Greenest I needed some scenery - rock formations mostly - for the party's tracking of the Cult back to their camp. Once more, Thingiverse proved a great source here, and I managed to print off enough rock bits to cover their approach to the Raiders Camp.

The Backbiters got to the Raiders Camp after clearing up the stragglers and (thanks to successfully interrogating three cultists) doing a dual -talking their way/sneaking past- the rearguard (the party split, with one group going directly through pretending to be cultist stragglers, the others sneaking around the outskirts). This also developed the Druid Thor as being a bit of an odd one - the party was really split with what to do with the three cultists they captured - kill them or let them go....whilst they argued Thor burned their shoes and let them go, deciding for the party!

The Backbiters did well at the Raider's Camp, extracting information and rescuing Leosin, and getting him back to Greenest after a whole session's worth of bargaining, roleplaying and various hilarity (we will never mention what happened with the two female dwarf characters as they posed as cultists in the "Emerald Excess of Tiamat" tent....!). Let's leave it at the point of Constitution tests were required....Anyway, I also managed to obtain quite a nice Monk figure to represent Leosin, seeing as he would be popping up at various points throughout the Tyranny of Dragons adventures.

They then dawdled about a bit deciding what to do and healing etc, so the cult was long gone when they returned - further confirmed by Othrod communing with a bird who scoped out some of the empty camp for him. This took our adventurers to the cave system, and their first real underground adventure since the small cave in their first "Test" outing. I printed a whole bunch of mushrooms for their expected path into the caves...

One of the great appeals of D&D for me is that people are always capable of surprising you, which the party did here. I expected them to go off through the mushroom forest and into the caves that way, but instead they ended up fighting the main human cultist force with Frulam Mondath. The Dragonclaws took a good few chunks out of the party, and Frulam managed to cast Hold Person on Othrod in the entrance to her chamber, making it easy for the Dragonclaws to defend it. She cast Spiritual Weapon and had a few swipes before deciding the party was too much, and escaping to the Dragon Temple cave.

The party paused a little before pursuing, meaning Frulam could alert Landregosa and his beserkers whilst she went to get the kobolds to cut off their retreat. Sirethnis and Othrod pushed a dead Dragonclaw down the escape chute, further warning Landregosa of their arrival - the beserkers watched and waited. The main party tanks then went down the chute, and were confined to a 5-foot wide corridor, meaning they couldn't really bring force to bear on the cult leader and his cronies. As the lead beserker was whittled away, so were the fighters - so when Landregosa stepped up behind him and unleashed his breath weapon, it was pretty devastating. Sirethnis was healed and hit back down again a couple of times, and Othrod managed to drag her back with Lander, despite being on only a couple of HP.

Being in no condition or mood to fight the blue half-dragon, they decided to shove the desk over the hole, and run for it. The timing of this was perfect, as at that moment the Guard Drakes and kobolds of Frulam arrived, trapping them. They fought out of the chambers, only to have Frulam Callm Emotions on many of the party, whilst kobolds got ready to attack. Despite this, the party managed to battle out, just escaping with little in the way of spells or HP left between them. They'd dealt the local members Cult a bit of a blow, but had been beaten and forced away in return.

The party managed to find another safe cave nearby to get a long rest in - during their long rest I determined that Frulam would ride out with half the kobolds and a couple of beserkers to warn Rezmir of the adventurers. Landregosa would stay behind with the remaining forces to protect the dragon eggs from harm. This meant I had to adjust the forces and descriptions in the cave system for the next session, but that was fine - all in a day's work for a DM!

Sunday, 22 January 2017

5e Dungeons & Dragons - The Chronicles of the Backbiters

Listeners to our podcast - The Hub Systems - will know that Oscar and I have embraced 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons since last Autumn. I think it's one of the best editions since my imagination was first captured by AD&D v1 back in the 1980s - it captures the feel of the original game whilst dealing with some of the more anomalous and detracting points of the game (like Magic Users only having d4 hit dice!).

Anyway, I used to DM a lot, and when a group of like-minded people got together through Meetup (having never met each other before!), I volunteered to DM again and we set off on a small starter adventure so everyone could get the feel of the new edition. This was "The Master's Vault", a RollD20 scenario which is a really nice way of getting into a new edition with players who don't know each other - lots of introductory stuff, it's not highly paced but has combat, traps and puzzles to solve. The party are a bunch of students of an old mage who now trains all types of adventurers. A couple of people couldn't make the first sessions, so I also had a couple of NPCs in there (handy as well for being the fall guy if the new edition proved unfortunately lethal at some point). 

Now this presented me with a couple of small issues - although I played AD&D as a teenager, and have been gaming for a long time, I don't actually own many fantasy figures - those I did have got lost or sold at some point. In addition, I didn't have any particularly good method of mapping that kept the required FOW/mystery element without requiring a lot of messing about in-game. Now for the former issue there are a few speciality manufacturers, but buying all the monsters, NPC etc was going to be expensive. I knew some of the players would have their own minis, but many wouldn't as they were first-time players or new to 5e after a long break.

In the first instance I tackled the mapping issue by printing out some sheets of A4 with 1" squares and then laminating them. This would give me a reusable grid that I could pre-prepare rooms etc on. It wasn't perfect, but it was fine as a starting point considering I didn't know how long this group would stick to things. I also thought about 3D printing as a solution, so started with a bunch of barrels and bookcases for the first adventure - they went down very well with the group. 

Figures require more finesse, however, and my M3D was very limited in terms of speed/throughput, so I looked to GW for some figures, buying twenty-odd unpainted Skinks from ebay for very little, modifying and painting them to be kobolds. They went down well too, and it was nice to paint something different.

Here was the party as it started;

Lander Hornraven - Male Human War Cleric
Thor (the mighty) - Male Human Druid
Uro Quo - Male Half-Elf Warlock (Great Old One)
Darrien Fellweather - Male Halfling Bard
Alonna Torlinn - Female Dwarven Rogue
Ranger Jon - Male Gnome Ranger
Mifregg (NPC) - Male Tiefling Fighter
Myrddin (NPC) - Female Tiefling Sorcerer (These two Tieflings were siblings - I had a plan!) 
Sirethnis Duenlyn - (Couldn't make first sessions) - Female Elven Fighter

This finished, we were then going to start Hoard of the Dragon Queen - mainly because I'd heard good things about it, and Lange from Jaded Gamercast has run it a few my mind if its good for him then it's good for me. I had Sirethnis be one of the students from the first adventure, but recalled to her home in the Greenfields after getting word from them that trouble was afoot. At the end of the RollD20 adventure they then received a request from this character for help, with word to meet at Greenest.

The issue of figures now raised its head again - HotDQ has a lot of stuff right from the outset - dozens of enemies. Lots of raiders, guards, veterans & berserkers - humans, basically. I checked out my newly found FLGS (Triple Helix Games - here's a call out for them) which has a whole bunch of Perry Miniatures figures - The English Army and Foot Knights are ideal for D&D, and incredibly good value. They also sell GW stuff at good prices, so I picked up some Lizardmen (no, I'm not going to use the silly new tentacle-porn name) including some cavalry to use as Ambush and Guard Drakes.

At this point a tragedy struck - my M3D printer broke...after contacting support, they basically said "Tough crap buddy, you don't live in the US so it'll cost you £400 to send you a new one". My reaction was to broadcast this as widely as I could so people don't buy from that PoS company, and to buy a new printer from a UK distributor - a Wanhao Duplicator i3 v2.1. For those that know, this is a cheap Prusa clone, as I wanted something between a fully "out of the box" product (expensive) and "here's a bunch of components in a box". As it was it took me 40 minutes from receiving my shiny new printer to producing a perfect first print, so I was VERY happy. It is also at least 100% faster than the old M3D, has a massive print area and a heated bed, meaning ability to print in different materials (all for much less than the "replacement/repair" service from M3D).

With the newfound speed and versatility of the new printer, I looked to Thingiverse to broaden the immersive style for the game, and found a whole bunch of different tile sets.

I printed out a load for the next session, which would form the basis of some of the pivotal encounters within the first episode. I also magnetised them with a thin magnetic sheet on the bottom so I could put them into place on steel sheets without them shifting about...

I also embarked upon my most ambitious print to that point, a dragon for the attack on Greenest...

In the interim, one of the original guys who couldn't make it dropped out, and we had another two join (one a Half-Orc Barbarian named Othrod Tranganth, the other a female Dwarven Wizard named Kylantha Marbleshield). I ran a small preamble for these three, where Sirethnis rescued Othrod from an execution by his former clan mates following the death of his father (as there was no-one left to protect this half-blood runt).

Othrod then accompanied Sirethnis, who returned home to find his father missing after going with other village men to find the source of recent raids. Tracking down her lost father, Sirethnis witnessed both her mother and father murdered by a mysterious Dragon Cult. Before he died, Sirethnis' father told her that he'd found out the next target was Greenest, and she should get help and warn Governor Nighthill before the attack came. Of course they arrived too late, though they managed to rescue him  with Kylantha, and make it back to the keep - where I had them meet the rest of the party in the next session. The player with Ranger Jon couldn't make it, but as is back story was that he was a bit of a wanderer, didn't like crowds and was actually really good at getting lost, I had him say he would meet them at Greenest as he would make his own way....getting lost and arriving late (for the session after).

Episode 1, the attack on Greenest, took a few good sessions to get through, but all in all it went pretty well - I'd managed to tie in the new characters, have them all on comparable experience and give them a compelling reason both to go to Greenest whilst under dragon attack and a desire to investigate the Cult of the Dragon (though Sirethnis took this as pure revenge...). Now we had a lot of players, so I got Mifregg electro-cremated by Lennithon in the party's encounter with the adult blue dragon, which also made Myrddin go mad and vanish (she was a wild magic sorcerer, and had done this kind of thing before!). I had plans for Myrddin to return at later points to plague the party after blaming them for the death of her brother - there's nothing quite like like setting up a long-term adversary who used to be one of the party, is there? 

At the moment the party are just completing Episode 6, but I'll cover some of how they got there in another post. Until then, happy gaming!

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

2017 - What will it bring for us gamers? Part 5: The Best of the Rest

Well a long week in Germany delayed my final instalment to this series, which covers the other game companies that are relevant and prevalent out there. There are a lot of them! I don't approach these in any particular order, and my predictions are limited due to my lack of familiarity with many of them, so take it all with the proverbial grain of salt - I'd also be interested for others feedback here too :-)

Fantasy Flight Games

FFG have had a great time since the rise of X-Wing, and have plenty of other irons in the fire as well. They know how to do marketing, they support tournaments and they have had fantastic exposure of the public to the Star Wars universe with a whole new generation from the great new Star Wars films. It's hard to see how they can get things too wrong in 2017, and I don't expect them to. Predictions for FFG don't really go beyond this, since their release announcements are so far in the future you know what they're doing way ahead of time (which is a great thing).


Malifaux has something of a cult following, as it appeals to a particular subset of gamers from what I see. Their no-dice card mechanics are interesting, but the universe holds little appeal from me and I also don't know a local playgroup, so I've never taken the plunge. However they're a slick company and from what I see are very involved and supportive, and fans love their stuff. They're kickstarting another game - "The Other Side" right now, and some of the factions look pretty cool, but with the fall in value of the pound, it's an expensive exercise to just get some cool minis...I can wait and buy what I want when they come out, since its already well over funded ($265k from $75k requested as of today). I expect it to be successful as a game in the same way Malifaux is, and you never know, I may pick it up in the future at a show.

Warlord Games

Warlord have kind of sat under my radar for a long time, principally because I've not played WWII games in a long while (Oscar has no interest here). They are the owners (of course) of Bolt Action, and in 2016 they introduced Konflict '47, which I think is a very smart move on their behalf, since it opens an established game to a new set of players as well as expanding it for existing ones. I expect Bolt Action to continue in its popularity, and Konflict '47 to do really well too. I love WWII wargaming (it's how I started), and I might try to get Oscar involved with the zombie/werewolf appeal of this alternative history game.

Now their Sci-Fi skirmish game (Beyond the Gates of Antares) I've not seen a lot of - Oscar and I did see the game a long time ago, and the minis looked uninspiring and flat, but since that time I think Warlord have put a lot into the game. It's difficult to say without being part of the community that plays it just how it might be going, but Warlord seem determined to make it stick. I'm still not really convinced, but we'll see in time.

They also have a ton of other games, all 28mm and going from lots of historicals (from Romans to Napoleonics) to more the outlandish like Project Z and including some licensed products such as the not-very-well received Terminator Genisys and the forthcoming Doctor Who: Into the Time Vortex games. I'd say they probably have enough on their plate for 2017!

Others and Kickstarters

So there are plenty of games companies I've not mentioned here, plus there's a shedload more stuff coming in 2017 by way of Kickstarters that are to fulfil (Cthulhu Wars Onslaught 2 from Peterson Games, the Dark Souls game from Steamforged Games, Shattered Void by White Dragon Miniatures)...the list goes on, and that's just what is available now. Who knows what Kickstarter will bring in 2017?

So as I've said many times before, it is indeed a golden age for gamers, which for me means that games companies need to be at the peak of their abilities to be able to keep up. With Brexit on the horizon, a new and supremely unpredictable weirdo inhabiting the White House, is it any wonder people are focussing more on their gaming than their real lives?

Friday, 6 January 2017

2017 - What will it bring for us gamers? Part 4: Mantic Games

Whatever your opinion of 2016 in other ways, it was a pretty good year in gaming. The hobby as a whole is growing at around 30% where most industries can hope for about 10% of that. We saw the arrival of some major new franchises like Dropfleet Commander and GW seem to be organising themselves in a slightly better way in many areas, despite still carrying on with Age of Sigmar (!). The rise of the board game strengthened more than ever, and there were a lot of great Kickstarter projects that were announced/launched and sometimes fulfilled. Not a bad time at all to be a gamer.

After looking over the Man Battlestations Blog, I thought it might be fun to do a similar predictive series of posts here over the coming days. So, what do I think is on the horizon for 2017?

Mantic Games

Mantic have been doing pretty well of late, and despite what you think of their Kickstarter pre-ordering system for their games, they seem to be getting more right than wrong. I wouldn't say they're a runaway success, but they're not screwing up at every turn either. 2016 saw them add a major franchise to their line-up with The Walking Dead license, which was another big success with 3,700 backers raising almost $700k. It'll be interesting to see exactly how Mantic handle this, although they are probably one of the most experienced companies in running and delivering Kickstarters in the current market.

One thing they definitely are getting right, is communication - at least on the broad meta-scale. Those of you who are signed up for their mailing list will have had several new-year(ish) posts from them stating exactly where they are with each of their games systems and what's going to happen in 2017 for them. This is golden, as it sets expectations right from the off and doesn't preclude them doing a few surprises along the way either. I don't really play Mantic's games (We have Deadzone, which I enjoyed, but it's one of my 3rd tier games I'd say. I also bought Dungeon Saga but have yet to play), but even so I was quite excited by these emails! They're also on the Mantic blog.

Mantic are an interesting company for me - given that they were formed by an ex-GW employee, they clearly went after what they saw as GWs weaknesses with very similar products but a different philosophy. I have to say were I a disenfranchised GW manager I'd probably have gone a similar way. Mantic operates with free rules, open - almost FFG style - communication and a nice, easily-navigable website. They feature products from other manufacturers that go with their games, and overall they generally look like they've got their shit together.

Despite this, I feel Mantic are still fighting off something of a "me too" image. This is probably unfair, and maybe their recent Kickstarter products will start to get away from this more as people come to Mantic for reasons other than "GW f*cked up Warhammer". That said, GW have probably been one of Mantic's best sales tools, because killing the Warhammer world in the way they did must have driven people to Mantic - not everyone, for sure, but a whole slew of people - after all, Mantic welcome anyone and even say your existing figures are close as saying "Yeah, GW did a number on you, but screw them, we love you - bring your toys over and play with us. BTW, here's a ton of cool stuff you can also buy, which is cheaper than you're used to...".

One thing is certain, - for the time being, Mantic Games are here to stay, and seem to be getting stronger as they go. I'd be interested in feedback from more invested players in their games to see what it's like to be a dedicated customer, but one thing I don't hear is the wholesale grumbles that come whenever someone mentions the GW monolith, so they can't be THAT bad! I'm not going to do massive predictions for Mantic, because they've stated quite clearly what they're going to so hardly much of a crystal-ball moment. However, I like the way they're thinking and the way they're progressing. Releasing a (let's face it) direct competitor to 40k which uses their already-developed Deadzone universe is a good idea - you get two games for the (much lower than GW) price of one - nice move.

A couple of things I feel they could improve is their plastic - the Deadzone models I have are that god-awful restic stuff that offers plastic minis with the assembly disadvantages of resin...I can't comment on more recent kits, but proper styrene-based plastic kits would put it in a much better place vs others on the market - especially if they're capturing ex-GW addicts. Reading some of the reviews on their website this is carried out in some of their other sets too, where assembly or quality issues
 come into play. Other ranges, however, get really good reviews, so it may just be that the newer sets are better and they're learning all the time (which would make sense)

The second is in some of their designs just feel...well...a bit off, if that makes sense? Not bad sculpts per-se, but just a bit odd. Not all the time, either, just like the sculptor has an off-day or a tight deadline and you end up with something that isn't quite right. This is different from the epic GW fails we've seen (like the appallingly bad AoS dwarves) where the design is just stupid, but more a question of execution. Take this as an example;

Look at the guy second from the left in the front row - yes, the guy with the weird frog-face. He's also in the rear left corner. That's what I'm talking about - these odd sculpts that just feel "off". Compare that with this guy;

This guy is great, and he's £7 and metal...rather than £14 and plastic if he were from GW. I think it may just be that they're growing, becuase I LOVE these fish dudes that are coming for Kings of War;

Oh wait, they do crab-things too....

...but I digress (and no, must resist urge to buy into another games system!)

So overall I think we can expect some good stuff from Mantic in 2017, let's hope their execution and materials live up to some of the sculpts, and lets hope the percentage of "slightly off" sculpts are reduced. If they continue this with everything else they're doing, then they look to be solidifying their position in the market, and rightly so. If you've any other information out there, please let me know! Finally, if you want to read about Mantic's plans from's their own blog link on the subject;

Thursday, 5 January 2017

2017 - What will it bring for us gamers? Part 3: Games Workshop

Whatever your opinion of 2016 in other ways, it was a pretty good year in gaming. The hobby as a whole is growing at around 30% where most industries can hope for about 10% of that. We saw the arrival of some major new franchises like Dropfleet Commander and GW seem to be organising themselves in a slightly better way in many areas, despite still carrying on with Age of Sigmar (!). The rise of the board game strengthened more than ever, and there were a lot of great Kickstarter projects that were announced/launched and sometimes fulfilled. Not a bad time at all to be a gamer.

After looking over the Man Battlestations Blog, I thought it might be fun to do a similar predictive series of posts here over the coming days. So, what do I think is on the horizon for 2017?

Games Workshop

Now let me make it clear (in case you've gained a different impression from The Hub Systems), I like GW, ok? They've done some really stupid crap over the years, but these guys basically created the global tabletop gaming industry back in the 1990s. I just think they lost the plot when they started to think that in doing so, it meant they ruled the world and could do wtf they wanted. This, coupled with an explosion of people who were sick of that and wanted to do things a different way, and the dawn of some new technologies that made it easier and easier to create high-quality minis, really changed that marketplace in a way they couldn't influence directly. Instead of responding to this by changing their ways, they became increasingly aloof and arrogant, allowing independents to flourish.

Let's face it, if GW had their shit together around 2005-2010, companies like Spartan and Mantic would be restricted to very fringe followings, or may not even have come into being at all. Instead the company was run by business people who fundamentally did not understand gamers, and pursued a profitable but "scorched earth" policy of going after hyper-dedicated uber-geeks with too much kit to check-out and 12 year olds with middle-class parents who would pay anything to keep little Johnny quiet in their rooms without becoming addicted to porn or religious zealotry.

Now GW got a new CEO in 2016, and it does seem to have made a difference. The company seems to be making better choices - I say better rather than good, because they still have Age of Sigmar and some cynical pricing structures, but hey - I'll take "better" over "relentlessly crap" any day. I have actually spent more on GW products this year than Spartan, and I only bought the SG stuff because it was more than 50% off in their Black Friday sale - and I then had to wait almost a month before it arrived! I picked up the GW stuff from my FLGS (yes, I have one now!), and it was remarkably reasonable - ok, I bought it for D&D, not for a GW game, but that's besides the point!

So what does this mean for the coming year? Well, as Bloodbowl was released in 2016 - to many fans pleasure (not my cup of tea, but each to their own) - we may well see BFG follow on its heels - maybe towards the end of the year? I know GW recruited one of Spartan's designers for this team, so it will be interesting to see what happens here, especially in the space (pun sort of intended) left by Andy Chambers and his work on DFC for Hawk. I get the feeling that SGs FA might struggle to survive in a marketplace where a fully supported BFG and DZC exist side-by-side.

What about their core games? Well I feel Age of Sigmar was a train wreck of epic proportions for a company like GW, and I hope they understand that fully. They can't undo that now, but they could try to make it much more similar to Warhammer, and effectively make Warhammer v10 (or whatever number you feel like inserting here). I'm not sure they'll do that, but I do see them expanding the races and armies to fill the spaces and reinvigorate the ranges in some way. Cleverly handled, I think they could re-start the fire of Warhammer.

And 40k? Well here I'd say they need to change things around a bit. The game has become a bit of a caricature of itself IMO, with victory almost reduced to "who brings the most largest models" in their army building and who rolls initiative. It needs to modernise and get away from that feeling, get back to being the ultimate skirmish game that it always was at its heart. They still need a space to play with the uber-toys, but make it a different space. Look at the popularity of the 30k universe, which I see expanding further primarily because of that.

I'd love to see GW become more of the company they used to be - a GAMING company, with awesome tutorials on making cool scenery from bitz box stuff and so on, because people miss that - it tied them to the company and loyalty is the number 1 thing in this industry, because we all love the new shiny. You need people to buy into the whole universe and it be immersive so you feel like your gaming is a joint venture - that's why D&D 5e has done so well I think, it's recaptured the spirit of D&D, and I really hope GW can recapture that in themselves. I don't know, but 2017 could be a pivotal year for them where they start to reconquer some of their lost ground.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

2017 - What will it bring for us gamers? Part 2: Hawk Wargames

Whatever your opinion of 2016 in other ways, it was a pretty good year in gaming. The hobby as a whole is growing at around 30% where most industries can hope for about 10% of that. We saw the arrival of some major new franchises like Dropfleet Commander and GW seem to be organising themselves in a slightly better way in many areas, despite still carrying on with Age of Sigmar (!). The rise of the board game strengthened more than ever, and there were a lot of great Kickstarter projects that were announced/launched and sometimes fulfilled. Not a bad time at all to be a gamer.

After looking over the Man Battlestations Blog, I thought it might be fun to do a similar predictive series of posts here over the coming days. So, what do I think is on the horizon for 2017?

Hawk Wargames

Hawk had a tremendously successful Kickstarter with Dropfleet Commander. It had a lower target than SGs recent DW campaign (£40k vs £50k), yet found almost 4,000 backers to fund it by a massive 1570%. Hawk struggled to fulfil in time, and is still sending pledges out now. It has also come under criticism for supplying retail outlets before fulfilling Kickstarter backers, though personally I completely understand why it did this - because it will have commercial agreements which are largely independent of any KS-funded project, and these relationships are more important collectively than any individual backer - no matter how unpalatable that might seem, it's a cold hard business fact. The alternative would have been to delay commercial release and piss off its distribution channels....

Anyway, Dropfleet happened and DZC continues, born along by Hawk's team and understanding of how to grow and support its community. That reputation will have taken a blow through the Kickstarter experience of many, but I don't think this will affect Hawk in the long run. Why? Especially as I've been so harsh on Spartan for similar delays in supply over the past year. 

Well, admittedly I don't have the "behind the scenes" view on Hawk that I did on SG, but just look at how Dave created Hawk and DZC in the first instance. The game was planned meticulously, beautifully produced and developed with the community and tournaments in mind. They stick to production schedules and give customers advance release notices - in short they set expectations within their grasp and fulfil them. They have released 2 games in their existence, both of which were produced in the same sort of polished manner. I get the delays piss people off, but let's be realistic, how many Kickstarters that have funded over 1000% delivered on time? Anyone ever been involved in a project which had 15 times the demand originally expected? Given that' they've performed ok I think.

Hawk are involved with and communicate to their supporters about 1500% more than SG do too, at least. They're still a small company too, but I think Dave fundamentally grasps what makes gamers tick and tries to scratch that itch - it's more about nice models and mechanics that were innovative in 2009. Look at their background development - there's more fluff in DFC from the start than exists in FA in 7 years of development!

So what do I think Hawk will do in 2017? They'll sort out their fulfilment issues and fill out their factions for DFC - battlecruisers and corvettes, shiny space stations and more. they'll work on shows and developing their community, and also making conjoined campaigns - I think that DZC will also benefit from the adoption of DFC. I'm seriously considering going back and looking at it since buying DFC, despite my lacklustre feeling about the 2-player set for DZC that Hawk brought out a few years back. I also think that they'll toy with developing a deep-space combat version of DFC, though I don't think that will happen this year - they might wait until BFG and FA show their hands first, and decide if they should or shouldn't thereafter. You get the feeling that decisions like this are thought about long and hard at Hawk, and then planned properly before implementation.

So I think Hawk will do well because they are growing from an established core base in a methodical and pre-planned way. Yes, DFC was more popular than they expected, but what a problem to have! Given that there have been a ton of people jump on board AFTER the KS, like Oscar and me, by going directly to retail I think they have a very rosy future ahead, and I think they'll do that with a steady and throughly planned release schedule in 2017. I must say I'm looking forward to it...

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

2017 - What will it bring for us gamers? Part 1: Spartan Games

Whatever your opinion of 2016 in other ways, it was a pretty good year in gaming. The hobby as a whole is growing at around 30% where most industries can hope for about 10% of that. We saw the arrival of some major new franchises like Dropfleet Commander and GW seem to be organising themselves in a slightly better way in many areas, despite still carrying on with Age of Sigmar (!). The rise of the board game strengthened more than ever, and there were a lot of great Kickstarter projects that were announced/launched and sometimes fulfilled. Not a bad time at all to be a gamer.

After looking over the Man Battlestations Blog, I thought it might be fun to do a similar predictive series of posts here over the coming days. So, what do I think is on the horizon for 2017?

Spartan Games

Let's start off with my once favourite games company. Unfortunately, after seeing behind the curtain for several years, I don't see great things ahead for SG. Why? Well, let me give you something of a parallel story from history.

I'm old enough to have been a kid during the personal gaming computer invention and rise. Back when the Sinclair ZX Spectrum was created in the '80s, I was at school and rode that crest of early computing brought to the masses. The market exploded from nothing to millions almost overnight, as everyone wanted this new stuff. There were many possibilities for a kid to convince their parents to buy, but the old Spectrum was the market leader, instantly recognisable with its rubber keyboard and coloured flash. Following it were the Commodore 64 for those with a bit more cash, and the high-end BBC Model B, which you could even get a floppy drive for.

The good old "Speccy" with its weird rubber keys

My parents were not high earners - not in itself a bad thing - but when coupled with their shocking lack of knowledge and gullibility, they became prime targets for the high street salesguy in the electronics store wanting to shift non-moving stock. Enter the Oric-1. 

Despite having hard keys, it was still pretty horrible to type on

"WTF is an Oric-1?", I hear you say as you frantically google it in another tab....well, let me tell you, in principle it was a better machine that the Spectrum - it had a non-rubber keyboard, a better BASIC (Spectrum BASIC was non-standard), a great music chip and it was competitively priced. Unfortunately it had some QC issues, meaning the machine I got on Christmas day didn't work properly. It was returned and I got another, which also had issues. Eventually this all got resolved by me getting an Oric Atmos, an even better machine with a keyboard of actual proper keys.

Oooh - sexy...proper keys that were nice to type on!

Of course, the Oric's market lifespan was limited - the Oric-1's initial QC problems in a marketplace where Sinclair machines were churned out in their thousands and with increasing memory meant that developers largely left it alone, meaning the range of games you could get for the Oric machine was much smaller than the Spectrum, Commodore 64 or even the BBC. In short, it failed to keep up with market demands and expectations, and though it was a great machine, its users enthusiastic and passionate, it fell into the dustbin of history long before its rivals.

If that story felt familiar, then it should. I feel Spartan - once ahead of the curve in this space - have been equalled and now (arguably) overtaken by their competitors. I don't believe Kickstarter funded projects will save them. They will continue with a (slowly shrinking) core of supporters, until the point their various games go mail-order only and/or become unsupportable, and go the way of Uncharted Seas.

The reasons behind this are twofold - resource and leadership. Spartan are located in a beautiful, but relatively remote and rural part of the UK. This provides relatively cheap building rent costs, but restricts the appeal of the location for up-and-coming developers. As we've all seen, staffing at Spartan is limited, and restricts their ability to keep up with customer demands, both in terms of information and product. In terms of leadership, Spartan Neil has a distinctive dictatorial style which makes him difficult to work with, which enhances the resourcing issue further. It also leads to some bizarre decisions being made that are not good for his business, but as the owner, who would stand up to those decisions?
This is something I am very familiar with, and there is a concept known as "The Healthy Organisation" - the works of Patrick Lencioni are great in this regard. Basically it talks about not only making SMART-led, KPI-monitored decisions in an organisation, but also making sure you take care of people, have an environment where decisions can be challenged and communicated fully and transparently etc. Companies that do this tend to do very well, because people are engaged, driven to succeed and feel supported in their endeavours.  For me, SG doesn't look like a SMART nor a Healthy Organisation.

Now this is OK if you're not fighting against the tide or want only a small piece of the pie, but less so when your market is very competitive or is fast-moving. Ten years ago this was probably true, and as SG entered into a background of a GW-dominated industry as a disruptive influence, it did well and developed quickly as a minor league player. The problem is, other companies did too. Mantic, for instance, which led by an ex-GW director, was much more business minded than SG.

So, specific predictions? I guess SG will fail to hit their DW Kickstarter fulfilment dates - it finished at around 270% of their goal with 858 backers (around 30-40% of other roughly comparable niche KS projects in terms of backer numbers) - though interestingly they had just THREE retail backers, which shows that they've either used up the goodwill of retailers out there or that shops are just going to wait and see if this has an effect on demand before getting stock - I suspect a little of both. Out of the pledges, 20 of them were their highest level "design a model" pledge, providing almost 12% of the total funding....which is a lot of promised design time, given SG committed to a couple of days with the designer each - that's 40 days or 2 full work months. Either they were not 100% honest about this or that's a LOT of design time not being spent on FA, PF & Halo...or they will horribly over-run. Or both, possibly all three!

Will FA v2.5/v3 come out in 2017? That's a toughie....I know "Spartan Linde" is working on this (he was a member of the FFG), but given I know his input, style and local meta, plus the increased centralisation of design to SG, I kind of hope it doesn't, because either the changes will be minimal and somewhat arbitrarily pointless, or they're going to screw it up. It would be a dangerous time to screw up, because Hawk will have fulfilled all their KS pledges, smoothed over any burns and got other stuff out by then. Plus they'll have had 6-9 months of real world play and feedback to hone their game and grow their userbase. If you like FA more than DFC, but can only get a game of DFC, guess what's going to happen in time? So overall I'm going to say they will, and it will have little impact on saving the system, primarily because Neil fails to grasp what people really want/need from a games company beyond shiny resin models.

What I hope SG do is release PF v2, which is really needed, though once again I think they'll screw it up for exactly the same reasons as above. I really feel for dedicated Planetfall players because the models are great, just the rules and fluff don't do them or the universe justice, nor has Spartan shown players any respect with the shockingly poor lack of support they've had - essentially being abandoned for most of 2016, and "supported" in the most haphazard and poorly executed way I've ever seen from a supplier.

I also expect Dystopian Legions will go the way of Uncharted Seas, and disappear completely. I also expect they'll do some batshit-crazy stupid project like their 1/300th scale 1946 WWII game they showed at Salute 2016, though god only knows what shape that will actually take. After some small hiatus they'll then abandon it.

Halo is the other difficult one. HFB has been little supported of late, and though HGC had an introductory splash, I've been underwhelmed with their releases post launch and their fulfilment hasn't been great. I can't imagine 343 are wildly enthusiastic about revenue numbers, and I expect further pressure from them on SG, impacting other ranges releases, or that relationship to become rather soured. It could go wither way from where I'm sitting.

So what I expect from SG is a set of releases which are not wholly thought through nor tie in with prior canon or background, because they don't see that as especially important. I expect them to try to lean more heavily on non-compensated fan support and Kickstarters to sustain themselves, and the "fickle gamers" as some have called them (or those with common sense and self respect as I would refer to us) gradually adopt other things to do with our time. 

I don't expect SG to explode, implode or revive their business, but to gradually become less and less significant in the gaming world as other companies get it more consistently right, and have their fingers on the pulse of what gamers want. I'd love SG to prove me completely wrong, but they've never failed so far to fulfil my jaded expectations of them. As T.S.Elliot wrote;

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.