Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Gundobad Games is ... five years old!

Wow! This blog turns five years old today. 

On April 10, 2019, I released an introductory post and then, the same day, a discussion titled "If Only We'd Never Taken that Treasure: Some Musings on Archaeology and the OSR." I'm very grateful to you all for reading, responding to, and supporting the blog.  

Looking back over some personal highlights from the half-decade:

+ I offered a number of posts mashing up academic historical insights with gaming: for example, these have included entries about the late Bronze Age, patterns of societal collapse across history, the logic of feudalism, or a mini-series on why Merovingian Frankish Gaul would make an excellent basis for a fantasy sandbox campaign. 

+ I reviewed a number of game systems, adventures, and accessories. In my reviews, I strive to offer robust, thorough insight into the product under discussion, and to be as constructive as possible while always offering an honest and fair appraisal. I'm particularly pleased that I could help offer early publicity for some notable small-press items, including the now-famed adventure Black Wyrm of Brandonsford and the skirmish wargame Space Weirdos

+ I wrote some stuff to sell that I am proud of. Most prominent has been Brazen Backgrounds, my system-neutral character-background generator for Bronze Age (or other sword-and-sorcery) settings. Less polished-looking but still fun is my Hunters and Highwaymen: 30 NPCs + Story Hooks for Taverns, Highways, and the Deep, Dark Woods (affiliate link). I also wrote up a cooperative blackpowder skirmish game that I really love, though I've never got around to marketing it. This thing has been such a hoot that it has grown quietly in the background, providing the basis for our household's preferred way to run Mordheim-like games and, now, 40k science-fantasy skirmishes - we're currently several games into a little narrative campaign using this system for violence in a grimdark galactic future. 

+ I also wrote a bunch of other weird things and gave them away or described them here. These have included an ultralight, ultrafast, high-powered ruleset inspired by Tunnels & Trolls (but much faster); a set of playbooks for Apocalypse World-style PbtA gaming, but in a Dark Sun-inspired sword-and-sorcery setting; and yet another Knave hack. I offered some pithy (well, ok, not always) house-rules and tweaks for improving gaming, especially in the OSR sphere: my simple procedure for identifying found magic items without nerfing cursed objects or slowing down the game too much; a system for making it interesting to open secret doors in dungeons that lets GMs get away with showing the whole map to the players; thoughts on fun and simple mass combat rules; a semi-narrative overland travel system that we used to good effect for Night's Dark Terror and Isle of Dread; and a method for making historically coherent campaign-lore backgrounds and maps, without spending half your life working on a novel. This checklist for infrastructure in a faction's lair has seemed helpful, too. 

+ I offered detailed post-mortems on several campaigns, including B10, Night's Dark Terror, a highly modified, Iron Age, Isle of Dread-crawl, and others. I also experimented with running mystery-investigation adventures without a GM or a pre-set plot, whether solo or cooperatively -- and was surprised at how well it all worked out! Some of the ideas I was working on back in 2020 are now appearing (only by coincidence and independent evolution, I believe) in well-known storygames. 

+ As a wargamer, a modeler (but not a model...oh no), and a doodler, I indulged my creative hobby side with strange Warhammer kitbashes and scratchbuilds, fan art, big setting maps, etc. 

So. The blog is now 0.5% of a millennium old. To those who've been along for the full ride, thank you for being part of the journey. To those who've found me more recently and stuck around, thank you for your interest and engagement, which always encourages me to stick with it too. 

Happy gaming, everyone. 

Monday, April 8, 2024

[REVIEW] BRIMSTONE RPG - a "high action" OSR game and toolkit

Brimstone is a new RPG released by Francis Hage of the Steel & Sorcery small press. The game describes itself as "a fantasy roleplaying toolkit built to run games of high action, high adventure, high peril ... designed to be 'rules light, option rich'- to introduce as much tactical depth within as few mechanics and crunch as possible."

Brimstone assumes a late medieval/early Modern setting, something like that of Lamentations of the Flame Princess or Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (I don't think it would be too hard to reskin to other settings). Here, as in WFRP, your character may end up missing limbs, blown up by a blackpowder weapon's misfire, charred by a backfiring spell, or ruing the day they made one deal too many with nefarious cosmic powers. Unlike WFRP, however, Brimstone emphasizes capable, creative heroes who are just as likely to dish out serious hurt on their foes - and do so with flair. Offering almost cinematic action with OSR-compatibility and low mechanical complexity, Brimstone is not just a game about random almost-heroes dying in a gutter. Again, the game's stated goals combine high action with high peril

Overall, I found the game largely successful at meeting those stated goals (please note, however, that this review is based on reading, but not yet running, the game). Francis kindly agreed to exchange a review copy for a fair and honest review. The game is available in .pdf for $9.99 USD at (DTRPG links on this post are affiliate links, which help support this blog's activities at no added cost). There's also a free Quickstart version, which generously includes about half of the overall game. Even more generously, Francis has released this game under a Creative Commons CC-BY-SA 4.0 license, allowing private and commercial reuse or remixing of the rules. Nice. 

While reading, Brimstone briefly reminded me of bits and pieces of many other games: Old School Essentials-B/X, Dungeon World, Beyond the Wall, TravelerShadow of the Demon Lord, Savage Worlds, Scarlet Heroes, and even a faint whiff of Brindlewood Bay. To be clear, I don't mean that the game feels unoriginal, or that it closely mirrors mechanics from those games. Rather, Brimstone's design pushes beyond a vanilla heartbreaker's bare requirements, thoughtfully tackling a number of larger problems and opportunities recognized by some better-known games. The result still feels like a (well-done) fantasy heartbreaker, but it's also an inspiring and creative synthesis of many different ideas. 

This should be a fun game to run, so long as the GM is comfortable making subjective rulings on the fly (though the core rules, described below, set out a pretty straightforward range of basic parameters for those judgments). Alternately, for GMs looking for fun or quirky new houserules, Brimstone also offers a toolkit oozing with cool ideas. I do have one area of concern: the product's internal prose editing. But that can be fixed (and might be, too, given the author's activity so far). On the whole, this is a fun ruleset that offers much more than the next vanilla B/X clone. 


The rulebook's helpful introduction clearly lays out which sections you'll need to be familiar with before running the game. Beyond character creation, this only requires reading three extra pages to cover 95% of what you need in your first session. 

The game's core mechanic is simple and easy to adjudicate. Roll a d20 plus your relevant Attribute bonus, along with - in some cases - one (or, rarely, more) "skill dice." Each PC starts with several skills, which are freeform narrative tags tied to a die size. Using these skills in play (or training new ones) allows gradual promotion to higher die-sizes (for example, that measly d4 in Writing Blog Reviews could get leveled up to a mighty d12 someday). You get to add one relevant skill die when you attempt a basic check. 

The target numbers for checks, meanwhile, are straightforward: normally 12, the TN goes up to 16 for hard checks and down to 8 for easy ones. The book notes that you can do flexible things with this basic system, if you want to: for example, you could use the three-tiered TN system when a roll really calls for variable measures of success (beating the easy/normal TN but falling below the hard TN could, at the GM's discretion, qualify a partial success on a hard task). 

The Attributes (you add those bonuses to checks, too) are Fortitude, Finesse, Wits, Willpower, and Appearance. Were I to run this, I'd probably change up the names. Fortitude and Willpower make me expect Reflex, but nope - we get Finesse; Appearance is basically Ye Olde Comeliness score, which ... is not one of the old TSR-era rules I particularly miss (it's not Charisma; that's covered under Willpower). And finally, the game's hit points get called Vigour - but with both Fortitude and Vigour jostling for attention, I'd much rather see the game stick with traditional names that will get out of the way, and instantly communicate how they differ from each other (after all, the game uses Hit Dice, which you roll to calculate your Vigour ... see what I mean?). 

The skill dice system, and its intuitive rules for using and improving skills, really appealed to me. I was less into the rules for xp; the party gains "xp dice" which they roll as a pool after sessions to see how many xp they earned. I'd rather just grant set amounts of xp and avoid disappointingly low numbers sometimes rolled on large dice. 

Inventory is slot-based. Distances and measurement are treated loosely, with semi-abstract range bands. Works for me. 

Overall, the core rules look great, though they occasionally are a bit fussier than need be. The bits I don't like are modular enough to trim out with ease.  


This part is interesting! 

Over the years, I've run lots of OSR and PbtA (Dungeon World) gaming. When I run lots of OSR stuff, I miss the dynamism of combat and action in DW; when I run lots of DW, I miss the more objective, precise nature of OSR or d20 combat. 

Brimstone sort of merges both approaches, sticking closer to OSR mechanics but adding more room for really dynamic (and subjective) actions than one often sees in old-school sessions. 

The attack roll is a basic check, with some twists. Roll d20 plus your Fortitude or Finesse bonus, trying to match not an Armor Class, but a regular check's target number - again, this is normally 12, but drops to 8 or climbs to 16 for easy/hard checks. The GM can make a snap judgment about setting the target number, but the game suggests subtracting an OSR monster's descending AC from 20, and then using the nearest of the three TNs. 

Nothing too unusual so far. But the game adds a bunch of simple twists and features that really reframe combat. Quite a few games have used combat "stances" to boost offense/defense/etc. during fights. Brimstone follows suit, but applies its weapon-skill-die system to its "attack styles." Before attacking, players choose flexible, defensive, or aggressive ways to apply their weapon skill die on their round; alternately, they can apply the die as extra damage to adjacent targets (rather like Ye Olde Cleave ability). On defense, attacked PCs choose whether to Dodge (with Finesse) or Brace (with Fortitude and Armor), each of which triggers different effects on a Critical Success. 

The real twists come in with "Creative Attacks" and "Heroic Reactions." A Creative Attack is a lot like a "combat stunt" in various other games. However, where an OSR stunt is often restricted to moves that don't directly deal damage, these now also let you mutilate, spindle, whorl, blind, or otherwise disable a foe (the game offers the example of shooting out a cyclops' eye). The attack roll is made vs. Wits. Then, there are additional criteria for success:

For achieving the intended goal of the attack, there may be damage requirements to achieve the intended effect. A common number to use as a threshold is 5 damage to have a significant limb-impacting effect occur, although this could increase based on the size of the foe. A good rule of thumb is roughly 20% of the target’s maximum VIGOUR. The GM should advise the player on any requirements before they attack.

This will require GM rulings, often on the fly. But it allows for players to get around the normal, "vanilla" hp-ablation rules in D&D, letting them attempt the kinds of dynamic attacks that I like in (some) PbtA games. 

"Heroic Reactions" are defensive, triggered by enemy actions, but they allow further "narrativey mechanic-bending" behavior (at GM discretion). Basically, they let one PC in the party, per combat round, give up their NEXT action to take action in response to an enemy on their turn. Some very short examples given illustrate the range of options: in one, a demon attacks with a sword, and a player fires their blunderbuss to take them out. But in another short, one-line example, players are encouraged to "shoot a firearm to deflect an incoming projectile." I believe that latter example would require activating a Heroic Reaction, and then using it to attempt a Creative Attack. As this illustrates, clever players can use these mechanics to do all sorts of things that they normally wouldn't get to try in an old-school D&D game, all while using broadly OSR-based mechanics. 

That being said, I had to sit and pore over the short pages of combat rules for a bit to figure out how these things click together. It's not that the rules are really complex; they're quite simple. But they deviate from many common OSR practices just enough that I think some GMs and players could miss the intended point. I think Brimstone would benefit from one of those one/two-page "example of play" narrations that some rulesets include - something that illustrates what it looks like when a group of inventive players and a responsive GM play Brimstone the way the author intends. 


Apart from classes, by the way, the game provides each character with some flavorful color: backgrounds, past soul incarnations (!), "bloodlines" (think "race"/species). These are simple and feel narrative-gaming-infuenced, but they also offer just enough mechanical heft to still feel at home in an old-school dungeongame. They gave me faint "tasting notes" of the Traveler lifepaths; there's also a single-page, one-size-fits-all-backgrounds table akin to Beyond the Wall's tables for past ties between player characters. 

The classes are simple, but flavorful, creative, and fun. Each one gets a class-specific Vigor/HD die size  and a class-specific Initiative die. At level 1, each class starts with a base class ability, and then gains new class abilities at every even level (so, 5 times over the course of the game's levels 1-10 range). The classes are all pretty neat; as I outline them all briefly, I'll say a bit more about a few of them, to give you a sense of what's on offer. 

Barbarians' key ability is a "Constant Rage" power. Having recently run a Pathfinder 2e campaign, I think I winced a bit initially when I saw this, remembering fiddly conversations about when a PC's rage "triggers" and how long it lasts. Not here; in Brimstone, it's an always-on thing for Barbarians. In combat, any damage they take from any source other than allies gives them Rage points, which can be spent 1-for-1 as bonuses to to-hit, damage, or Fortitude save rolls (until the end of your next turn). As the game notes: "Jump into the thick of things. You don't want to have high ARMOUR -- maximize your incoming rage." This strikes me as ... a really elegant way to support popular stereotypes of a minimally armored, mightily thewed barbarian raging in combat. 

A further note on how some of the game's tiny details can work well together: the Barbarian's Initiative die is only a d6 (they'll roll this to try to beat the GM's initiative score to determine who acts first in combat). For comparison, the Fighter-equivalent rolls a d10, and the Thief-equivalent rolls a d12. So the Barbarian is relatively slow to activate; this offers some thematic reinforcement, it also interacts nicely with the Barbarian's Rage ability - they want to take some empowering damage on the enemy turn, and then retaliate in force on theirs! 

Entertainer: you're not just a bard, but a bard-like performer with a hovering gaggle of faerie spirits who've bonded to you and can share magic spells with you (though there's a caution: you need to keep talking to them, even though others can't see them, because they'll abandon you if they get bored. So the game pitches this character as a powerful person who appears to talk to themself routinely). Lots of flavor in this class. 

The Master of Arms is the game's Fighter. I really liked how Francis handled this class. It showcases how this game can take things to 11 while remaining OSR-compatible. The Master of Arms starts with an extra d6 weapon-related skill of their choice, that they can add to hit, damage, or FORT save rolls (this rather reminded me of DCC's Fighter Feat die). The also gain different "Feats of Flair" and points to spend activating them. These are free actions that don't take up your main action on your turn, and they let you do various narrative-bending, impressive things in combat (instantly load a firearm, dash a "suitably epic" distance to interrupt an attack against an ally, etc.). These look very fun, though a couple of them could be worded a bit more clearly (otherwise, GMs will just need to make some house-adjudicating). 

The Master-of-Arms - character class art

One of the abilities available to this class, "Counterstrike," stood out to me as a fun design choice. It lets you allow a foe's incoming attack to hit you automatically in exchange for a free attack back against them. Here's the hook: if your free attack KILLS the foe, the damage from their auto-hit against you gets negated. In other words, a warrior with this ability can size up wounded or weak opponents, then make a risky choice to try to take them out on their own enemy activation. This is the kind of small option that spices up combat with meaningful decision points without burying the game in too much crunch. I like it. 

The Scoundrel is Brimstone's Rogue/Thief. Their core ability = mysterious luck, expressed mechanically as the ability to change any rolled check to a 50/50 coin flip - even after a failed regular roll. You lose this ability (until you've rested) as soon as you fail a coin flip. The Scoundrel's various level-up options are juicy, handy things that empower fast, sneaky, well-equipped characters -- but without too much mechanical load or bonkers overpowering. 

Hunters are Rangers, of course, and their key feature is an animal companion. That trope can bore me quickly, but there's a twist here; your companion can talk to you, but only in one-word statements (Foe! Treasure! Left!). Fitting the pattern emerging here, the other class abilities are pretty simple but flavorful, and would be fun for an imaginative, engaged player who knows how to tackle a dungeon or wilderness with some good ol' OSR-style agency and problem-solving. 

Then we get into the Alchemist and several magic-using classes (Sun Priest, Moon Witch, and Wizard). The three magicians are aligned with the game's cosmic factions (Sun, Moon, and Hell); each has their own flavor and access to different spells. 

I'll just unpack the Sun Priest in a bit more detail. On the surface, they are your standard D&D Cleric, albeit limited in their daily spell/prayer choices to Sun- and Healing/Protection-related magic (the combined list for both spheres contains 25 spells, and the other kinds of spellcasters have their own, differently-themed spell lists). But there's a bit of a Gandalf vibe going on here, too; they need to use a magic staff, and their level-up abilities include things like returning yourself from the dead if you pass a Hard Save, or always being believed so long as you never tell a lie. There's an option to share your magic with an ally, or even to ask the Sun (cough cough the GM) for an honest answer to a Yes/No question, once per in-game week. 

This character, once again, is pretty simple, but it feels totally distinct from the other magic-using classes, which thematically express their own ties to rival cosmic forces. Spellcasters can also gain access to magical "keywords," which they may use as relevant to create their own spells, in consultation with the GM. 

The Moon Witch - character class art


We come now to another of the game's distinctive features. I noted earlier that Brindlewood Bay (of all things!) was one of the games I thought of while reading Brimstone. This piece - the "Souls" rules - is why. Brindlewood has a 'crowns' rule that a player may invoke as, essentially, a 'get out of jail free' card - it's a little piece of characterization you reveal to negate death or other horrible fate - and you've got a finite number you can take before your character is lost permanently.

Brimstone's "souls" rules are a bit like that (though I think Brimstone's version is more interesting). In this game, the implied setting involves a three-way cosmic conflict between the Sun, the Moon, and Hell. Here, human souls can be traded away for divine/cosmic favor - up to four times (that is, the human soul can be quartered, cut into four fractions). A character finding themself in a dire pinch may call out for aid to any of the three cosmic powers, offering to "sell their soul" - or more accurately, one quarter of it - in exchange for what amounts to a "limited wish" effect. 

I would have appreciated a bit more guidance/clarity on the limits surrounding this power. This is one of those cases where Brimstone reads like a distillation of one play group's extended experiences, but occasionally without the clarity of looking over their shoulder for a full campaign. I get the impression that players might bargain with their soul to escape death, or perhaps to achieve some really profound goal. The sky really is the limit here, but just note that this subsystem is going to require a thoughtful GM's adjudication. 

On the other hand, selling one's soul - as the phrase implies - involves a terrible bargain. You can only do it four times. Moreover, each time you do so, you roll on tables for the power with which you bargained (each one has their own table). These will impose a "vow" - sort of like the vows some systems require of their paladins - along with a punishment to be imposed should you ever break that vow. Note that if you've sold multiple portion of your soul, you will be burdened by multiple vows - and any incoherence or conflict between your vows is your problem to solve (I don't mean that as a criticism of the game; the intent here is clearly to saddle empowered PCs with some pretty significant, complicating, and potentially entertaining problems). 

Selling bits of soul to multiple powers is most likely to exacerbate conflicts, since the different powers' agendas are so opposed. Well, why would you bargain with multiple powers to begin with? Because getting a wish fulfilled by the Sun or Moon isn't guaranteed; you have to pass a check to pull it off. On the other hand, as the game notes, "Hell is always listening." You don't have to pass anything to gain infernal bargains. This means that the game's mechanics are constantly tempting players with great power that can be obtained at any time -- but usually at a pretty significant cost. I was intrigued by how thoughtfully, but simply, these rules model one of the great dilemmas in fantasy source literature (Faust, Moorcock's Elric, every classic Warhammer champion ever, etc.). 

Intriguingly, there's also a half-page of rules on how to combine magical artifacts with the Souls rules. Great artifacts can work like cosmic patrons, too, offering profound power to those willing to bind part of themselves. As the game notes, the most powerful (and demanding) of artifacts, ones that require up to 3/4 of a human soul to unlock their full potential, "will always tempt the wielder to give more, perhaps even giving them a free taste of what is to come." 

I didn't see a list of sample artifacts, but this is a juicy, juicy mechanical/thematic setup for the kinds of trouble I love offering my players' characters. [Oh - the author recently announced future plans for this system, including a zine supplement with material like ... sample artifacts!]. 


Brimstone calls itself a toolkit, right? It also includes rules for things like transport animals, mass battles, sea voyages and naval combat, fun and unpredictable blackpowder-weapon use, downtime, overland travel, afflictions, etc. 


Unfortunately, this is where I do need to offer a critical assessment. 

The layout and overall appearance of the book seemed quite good, but I had some issues with the book's organization and -- at the opposite end of the editing spectrum -- a need for better clarity and line-editing throughout (for context, this is based on the v1.1 version of the file). Happily, the author has already tackled some editing issues in a first update. I hope he'll do so again; this game is really fun, and it deserves a pass by a professional editor, if possible. 

I'm not going to belabor this point other than offering a few examples below (I will pass more detailed feedback on these issues to the author). I don't think this issue should make Brimstone hard to play/run, but it did make the game text frequently distracting as I read it. I noticed things like: consistently absent possessive apostrophes, some mis-spelled or inconsistently spelled words, use of the plural form "dice" instead of the singular "die," a pair of inaccurate page cross-references on p. 29, the occasional sentence that looks incomplete or incoherent, and a few important items not included in the table of contents.  

If these issues can be cleaned up, then Brimstone will be a very handsome-looking game indeed. 


If you're the kind of gamer who's already settled into B/X (or whatever) and sees no need for any more input from hacks or new games, then you probably don't need this (and you probably haven't made it this far in my review, anyway). But if you're the kind of gamer who pays any attention when something like Black Sword Hack or a new Whitehack edition hits the streets, then you'll probably find something interesting here, too. 

I mentioned in passing that the author recently announced plans for further development of this game. It absolutely deserves such development. What's already here is fun and imaginative, and shows a good sense for designing simple rules that pack a lot of thematic punch. I can't quite shake the feeling that more editing and a bit more explaining what the author means through some examples of play would help. This is clearly a labor of love from a specific table AND also a toolkit that can be useful for others, too. In its present form, the rich content creaks a little from rough presentation, here and there. But if this can be tidied up and developed further, then the future for Brimstone may be deservedly bright. It is already inspiring me to think about its "toolkit" options, and to revisit some of my own houserule ideas again. 

Thanks for reading, and happy gaming! 

Saturday, March 9, 2024

Painted Update - $$-store Birdhouse Turned 40k Imperial Shrine

 As I explained in my last post, this started life as a cheap wooden birdhouse from the dollar store. Add various bits of junk and bitz-box bits, and now it's a minor shrine for the 40k imperial cult. I may still tweak it a bit, but it's now mostly done. 

I wanted to combine a bit of Oldhammer goofiness with a vaguely sinister feeling of faded glory. I think this should help spiff up the table games quite a bit. I almost threw away the handful of birdhouses I purchased dirt-cheap, but after this result, I may convert the other two into something Warhammery as well. 

Sunday, March 3, 2024

Dollar Store Birdhouse turned Galactic Imperial Cult Shrine

I got in some time building a 40k-ish terrain piece this weekend. Here's a WIP shot. This was once a wooden birdhouse from the dollar store, but I've augmented it with a bunch of doodads from old broken plastic toys, household trash, GW wargaming bitz, etc. Now, it's a small local shrine for the galaxy's imperial cult/ecclesiarchy.  

I imagine this is a reliquary shrine holding a few items from a revered saint - probably a fallen Space Marine or Inquisitor (for example, I'm planning to hang a terminator marine's helmet in the (currently blue) circle left of the doorway). Generations ago, the bored authorities were persuaded that this shrine merely holds pious replicas of mighty relics - as are, to be sure, the replica armaments hanging on the building's outer walls. But, in fact -- as true initiates in this cultic chapter learn --  the (genuine) remains stored within were retrieved illegally from a crashed spacecraft or smoking battlescape, long ago. Like a galactic cargo cult, these local imperial cultists now revere objects they only dimly understand. 

Someday, perhaps, the authorities will catch on, and come looking for gear that should not be in civilian custody. Or perhaps it will be pirates, thieves, or some other kinds of cultist that come looking. At any rate, the shrine and its armed acolytes are ready to fight for their treasures. 

The preacher's platform upstairs should make a nice sniper's perch, as illustrated by an obliging marine scout and a preaching inquisitorial agitator. I look forward to getting some paint on this thing -- and then maybe crafting some hanging banners to pump up the decorations. 

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Converted Inquisitorial Preacher - finally painted

 In my most recent (battle-report) post, my pictures reveal many unpainted figures (sigh). Well, tonight I got some paint on another of my converted/kitbashed minis. This one is the radical preacher (and agent provocateur) for my recently-started "Re-congregant" inquisitorial retinue (for the Inq28 Warhammer genre of gaming). It's quite fine to cut up and design new miniature characters, especially with the zany diversity typical of such warbands. 

This guy started out as a Reaper Bones alchemist, but had a run-in with my hobby knife and some 40k Skitarii/Chaos Marine bits. I should still drybrush the base, but it was time to put the paints away for the evening...

Sunday, February 18, 2024

Inq28 slaughter (and kitbashing)

 I just suffered what might be the worst thrashing of my wargaming career. It was, however, still pretty fun. :-) 

To make matters worse, we were playing a game I designed - a game that continues to provide excellent fun and dynamic, narrative play. For now, it's called Bright Blades, Burning Planets -- a competitive skirmish game built on an older cooperative swashbuckling ruleset I made some years ago, called Bright Blades, Black Powder. I wrote my Bright Blades rules systems to offer dynamic, tactical movement and meaningful choices across the game, especially during the core interactions of combat. They provide fast, cinematic, dynamic, slightly ridiculous play. Of all the game systems I've ever designed, I think I love it most. :-D 

Well, I've been in a bit of an "Inq28" mood of late, kitbashing my own Inquisitorial retinue. Meet the ill-fated gang that assembled for today's skirmish: 

Aside from the lack of paint on most of these fellas, I like this little team! Moving from left to right: 

+ The Inquisitor: he's a member of an obscure Ordo Historicus sent to research and preserve arcane secrets about past threats to the Imperium. However, he's also aligned with the Recongregator philosophy - a radical viewpoint held by a minority of Inquisitors who recognize the Imperium as just as dangerous to humanity as the xenos and chaotic threats around it. In other words, he's an anarchist agitator with an Inquisitor's credentials! The miniature is mainly an old Marine Captain from the Battle for Vedros boxed set, but I've given him a thunder hammer and an alternate powerpack as well. 

+ The Radical Preacher: this chap was an Ecclesiarchy preacher who became disillusioned with the state of his flock. The Inquisitor snapped him up into his retinue, and now employs him making subversive speeches to disrupt imperial order at just the right moment. The figure was a Reaper Bones alchemist which I've modified, adding a Skitarii vanguard helmet, a hand holding a bolter pistol, and another with a chainsword. This guy was recently promoted to Hero status (in my houserules) after surviving an earlier fight. 

+ The Abhuman Beastman melee specialist. Just a Reaper Bones beastman charging with a big axe and shield. I haven't modified this figure, since I like using it for normal fantasy fights as well. 

+ The last two "gentlemen" are veteran tactical troops, one armed with a plasma rifle and one with a belt-fed bolter. These are made from Chaos Marine bodies kitbashed together with skitarii bits and little home-made additions. 

So much for my team. I'm mid-five-part campaign with my kids. One is running a group of champions for a "True Emperor" - a mysterious figure who claims that the thing upon the Golden Throne is an empty husk, and that he is the Emperor of Mankind reborn (a claim long anticipated by dogmatic Inquisitors of the Thorian persuasion). Various imperial servants (and others) have pledged their allegiance to this "True Emperor," who claims he will soon usher in a blissful society of equality for those who have followed him. The fact that his followers include Alpha Legionnaires may or may not be relevant to assessments of his true nature

Also present is the "Sister of Truth," a persuasive (and deadly) speaker for the "True Emperor's" cause. A pair of grunts in carapace armor help round out this squad, as does a former graduate student and current unregistered psyker (recruited from civilians present at our first skirmish). The ghost-looking thing is a token representing the favoring presence of the True Emperor, used for narrative (and humorous) effect without mechanical effect. 

But a third warband was present, too -- a dangerous crew, openly loyal to the Ruinous Powers. They were an exotic mix of Chaos Space Marines led by a Sorcerer, supported by several gun-toting grunts. 

This Chaos warband has a nefarious campaign-goal: they reason that, if the so-called "True Emperor" is more than just a charlatan, then killing him (while still weak) and absorbing his corpse's latent psychic energy would be a great coup for Chaos forces active in this sector. 

For today's scrum, a trial of such shenanigans was in order. All three warbands converged on a ruined necropolis, where -- a thousand years earlier -- a dozen powerful psykers had been sacrificed together on an arcane altar. The Chaos band hoped to absorb the victim's still-present energies as a useful trial for their future plans. The other factions, although not planning to "absorb" the "True Emperor," wanted both to block Chaos' hand and gain this precious psychic resource for their own use. This would require hacking into an ancient control terminal driven by the altar -- the ancient humans' spirits still weirdly fused with the flickering machine-spirit. 

Eager to snatch this psychic prize for their own -- and to wreak vengeance on the false emperor's minions for a recent defeat, my Inquistorial retinue arrived, ready to kick some galactic butt. 

Or so it seemed; I had a dream, when the game was young...but things deteriorated quickly. The Chaos Sorcerer moved ahead of his forces and reached the altar-terminal. 

My Inquisitor, on the other hand, secured a commanding position overlooking the battlefield. Unfortunately, this commanding position also soon exposed him to fire from Chaos troopers hidden behind ruins (top left of picture). He started taking hits. 

Meanwhile, my plasma gunner found cover in a sheltered doorway, and used this position to slow the "True Emperor's" advancing forces. 

But my Inquisitor was in real trouble, buffeted by enemy fire, wounded, and knocked down...

Aaaaaaand an Alpha Legion shooter could still draw LOS to the Inquisitor, despite his prone position. Taken out of action! 

Here's the overall battlefield not long thereafter. 

The Sorcerer successfully hacked the data terminal, and made for the board-edge with his prize. My remaining troops got shot up by both other factions, but mainly tangled in a vengeance beatdown with the "True Imperial" forces. In the end, the Chaos warband got away, and I watched as every remaining figure of mine was taken out of action. Total Party Kill, you might say. 

To add insult to injury, in the post-battle campaign management phase, two of those casualties were confirmed as permanent kills (goodbye, beastman melee brute and plasma-gun-wielding veteran!) - and the only figure who rolled high enough to "level up" from the experience instead of dying was the Inquisitor - but he's already at max level. Oh well. At least I'll get a few recruitment points now to have another go at my shady opponents. 

We have planned this as a five-battle arc, a little campaign, and although I'm getting my little 28mm teeth kicked out, it's pretty fun. It's also encouraging me to keep revisiting opportunities to kitbash more figures. I always feel that kitbashing things bumps up my sense of investment and enjoyment. 

Thanks for reading this far! If you game soon, may you roll better than I did - and have fun!

Friday, February 9, 2024

RPG Alignment ... some musings

 A recent post over at Noism's blog addresses that old bogeyman - alignment in D&D. The post offers some thought-provoking reactions to alignment relativism, both new and old (I remember all that stuff about "neutral balance" in Greyhawk back in Gygax's time seeming kind of irksome. 

At any rate, I don't often wade into related waters on this blog, but reading that post made me think of some old notes I typed up ... woah, almost two years ago. Here is one articulation of an aligment system I was thinking about a while ago. I think it's closest, in terms of edition wars, to the alignment system described in 4th edition D&D, of all things. Plus, it's got my own twist on things. The relative position of each alignment is important, as entities might move back and forth over a lifetime, crossing from one alignment into a neighboring one. 

A possible alignment system: 

+ Good

+ Lawful Good


Chaotic Evil

In practice and possibly in rhetoric, Good tends to favor the true wellbeing of self and others, even at personal cost (within the limits of the thinker’s understanding of wellbeing). Good recognizes that Law and Disorder both have a place, both are readily abused, and both must be subordinated to the overall promotion of wellbeing. Good also recognizes, however, that Law is usually closer to it than is Chaos. 

Lawful Good tends to favor the wellbeing of self and others, but this is conditioned by a strong pull in favor of Order as a competing claim on individual or collective wellbeing. Because Lawful Good cares about real wellbeing, Lawful Good at times senses a pull toward Good over and against the interests of Law; however, because of Lawful Good’s strong interest in Order and hierarchy, Lawful Good always carries a temptation toward Evil carried out in the name of greater law and order. 

In practice and possibly in rhetoric, Evil tends to favor the perceived wellbeing and felt needs of the self over those of others, and/or the perceived wellbeing of some group over that of other groups (usually, the self is part of the favored group). Because hierarchical structures are useful for maintaining such privilege, Evil often feels some pull toward Law; if the stirrings of conscience are allowed room, this can lead to movement into Lawful Good. However, because Evil pushes against the intended moral order of Creation, the seeds of Disorder also remain latent in Evil as a potential draw toward Chaotic Evil.

Chaotic Evil tends to favor its own perceived wellbeing and felt needs over others’, but a strong attraction to Disorder often motivates self-destructive actions that undermine long-term fulfillment of its own felt needs. Stronger feelings of self-interest may draw Chaotic Evil toward Evil. 

‘Unaligned’ only exists for non-sentient creatures. Among sentient mortal beings, Evil may be the default alignment in practice (sages debate this point). Movement between alignments is common over a lifetime.