From the Ashes

As part of the rebirth of Ardwulf’s Lair, I intend to blog more regularly — my goal at the moment is a post a week, but we’ll see what evolves. Much of my content will be wargaming stuff at the Ardwulf’s Lair YouTube channel, or video game pieces at ArdwulfDigital.

Current endeavors include:

  • At Ardwulf’s Lair, the How to Wargame Series, currently featuring Paths of Glory but moving on to another system once that’s wrapped up.
  • Also at Ardwulf’s Lair, Wargame Exploration continues with GMT’s Unconditional Surrender.
  • Next on the wargame docket is probably going to be Multi-Man/The Gamers’ OCS, likely with further exploration videos as I try to learn the damnable thing.
  • At ArdwulfDigital, I have no concrete plans set, but the game I am currently most interested in is Elite: Dangerous. So you may see some video on that, or on Stellaris once the new patch releases.
  • Try to get a blog post up at least once a week. Hopefully becoming more frequent than that.
  • There should also be a new Channel Update video up in the first week of October. Additional plans will have solidified by then as well.

There have been a lot of requests/polite demands for more Paths of Glory episodes. The whole series is fully scripted and at the moment I’m dealing with some space management issues (this means my gaming space is junked up) that prevent me from setting the game up. But I do expect to have those wrapped up in the next week or two at the outside, and once that’s done I should be able to get back to work.

Unconditional Surrender: Exploration and Impressions

I am currently working my way through an Exploration series of videos on Unconditional Surrender from GMT Games and designer Salvatore Vasta. The first episode in embedded below; the second will be out tomorrow. My impressions are below.

Unconditional Surrender is a strategic-level game about World War II in Europe. While both the rulebook and playbook are fairly hefty and there are some fussy rules here and there, it’s really not very complicated for a game of its scope. I was able to get the hang of all the basics by watching a few videos (and there’s a ton of video on it,) and the finer points didn’t cost me too much time looking up on the spot.

There are a couple of things about this game that some folks have been turned off by. Most obviously it uses an unusual map projection which looks funny to hairy old wargamers who have seen a lot of strategic maps of Europe. But the equal-area projection that it uses is actually very smart; it means that hexes toward the north of the play area are much less distorted in size than they would be on a more conventional map. This allows, for example, for all of Scandinavia to fit on the table, while eliminating silliness like Soviet units roaming around in the vast expanses of northern Finland.

The other striking thing that’s obvious at a glance is the counters — they have no strength factors on them. Instead, differences in combat ability are represented by a number of die roll modifiers. One might feel that the game was missing some detail without combat factors, but in practice everything you;d want represented ta this level is worked in, and it all works really well at the table.

One of the game’s features is that all combat — ground, air, naval and strategic warfare — uses the same combat table. The modifiers and interpretations of the results are different, but everything works the same way, removing, right off the top, a substantial amount of rules overhead, while missing none of the detail or flavor that you’d want.

This elegance carries forward throughout the design. Production is handled very cleanly, for example, yet offers more strategic choices than a simple reinforcement schedule. The events of the game effect this is a realistic way. When Germany conquers Poland, for example, it gets the Polish Corridor and a potential new unit in the pool — but it doesn’t just get all of Poland’s factories for its own use. The same type of arrangement holds for the USSR and the Baltic States.

Diplomacy runs on a simple chit-pull-plus-conditions system that gives real choices but produces plausible results. The result is a game that flows along historically plausible lines but doesn’t feel scripted to always produce historical results. It’s not guaranteed that Italy will end up as an Axis country, for example, or the Yugoslavia will join the Allies — but despite wargame tradition and conventional wisdom, those outcomes were not preordained historically, either.

I’m exploring Unconditional Surrender solitaire, but it would work great with two or three players. I judge that it is not a true three-faction game, but that’s okay. And there are guidelines for playing with four, where the Axis gets split into west and east fronts controlled by separate players. A variety of scenarios are presented, including several learning games to ease oneself in.

This isn’t a review — I haven’t played enough of Unconditional Surrender to write a credible one. I don’t know if it will become a ‘classic” — I’m not an expert on the classics, and I’m reluctant to assign that label to a game this young. But Unconditional Surrender seems to me to be very well-designed and produced, and I can see it getting a great deal of play.

The good design also extends to the components; the map by Vasta and stalwart Mark Simonitch looks great, the counters are the usual GMT quality (but on the somewhat lighter white-core stock) and there’s a stack of very well-thought-out play aids. But to me the Rulebook and Playbook are the best part: they are well-organized and crystal clear except in a couple of places, and better yet, there’s an index, and one of the best indices I’ve seen out of GMT at that. They are also stuffed with detailed examples, advice, designer commentary and the like.

Unconditional Surrender is currently out of print and fetching big bucks if you buy it from speculators, but it’s up for reprint on the P500 and should make it back to store shelves early next year. If you’re in the market for a clean-playing (if not necessarily quick) strategic World War II game, check it out. I can already tell you that I would rather play this than World in Flames or any of Third Reich’s various spin-offs and descendants.

Exploring New Channels

I find myself to be more of a YouTuber than a blogger these days. Not by any particular plan, so I do still plan to continue blogging, but alongside a retooling of the YouTube channels. There’s a video update explaining all this, but in brief, I have started an ArdwulfDigital channel to hold the great majority of my video game content, while tabletop game content (primarily wargames) will stay at the existing Ardwulf’s Lair channel.

Old video game content will stay where it is; YouTube doesn’t have a way to transfer content. So only the new stuff is affected.

One current project, just wrapped up is a Exploration series on MMP’s The Mighty Endeavor, so go check out the embedded videos.

How to Wargame, A New Video Series

Now up on the channel are two new videos in a new series called How to Wargame, with a focus on bringing newcomers to wargaming with explanatory walkthroughs and topical treatments. It will be an ongoing series even after I’m finished explaining the first title, Paths of Glory from GMT Games and designer and general WWI master Ted Racier.

In the first video I introduce the game and explain the various components.

In episode 2 we delve into the sequence of play, discuss the victory conditions and explain two of the game’s phases: Mandated Offensives and War Status.

Enjoy! The response so far has been incredibly encouraging. Feel free to share these around.

Stellaris First Impressions

I’ve long wished for a space 4X game done is the Paradox style. For a long time, the Distant Worlds series was the only game in town, high-priced and primitively adapted to the modern GUI as it was. Now we have the long-awaited Stellaris, from Paradox itself, and it is at once very much in the style of their grand strategy games, and at the same time differs from their earlier games in a number of intriguing respects.

As the developers have explained it, Stellaris plays out in a three-act framework. In the first act you play a 4X game, in the second you play a more typical Paradox grand strategy game, and in the third you face some kind of final confrontation generated by the game based on the actions of the players. There’s really a fourth part, a prologue of sorts in which you create your species and would-be interstellar empire, that has huge ramifications on how you will play the rest of the game.

I’m closing in on the end of the first act in my own game, and the demarcation line isn’t a clean one. Perhaps I have just drawn a short straw; perched on the galactic rim, I have a vast expanse of uncolonizable space immediately to antispinward. On the one hand, this has seriously crimped the eXpand element of the 4X formula; but on the other, it’s kept alien enemies largely off my ass, including one “fallen” empire, advanced and powerful but stagnant and decrepit.

From the pre-launch video playthroughs I’ve seen (press copies issued to various YouTube bigshots had their blackouts lifted late last week,) this experience seems like a bit of an outlier… but nobody seems to be having quite the same early-game experience even with relatively similar races and empires. Which suggests a lot of variability to gameplay even in the early stages. This is a good thing.

Just because my colonization has been a bit crimped and I haven’t had that much contact with other empires, though, doesn’t mean the time has been spent sending ships out into empty space; there’s a lot to do even in unoccupied parts of the galaxy. There’s quite a bit of space-based life, some of it placid and some of it hostile. There’s also pirates, typically by dissidents from your own empire and using its cast-off hardware. There are also systems to survey and anomalies to investigate, and deep-space stations and mining and science outposts to build. I felt like my empire was straining against its borders, but maybe the solution is to find natural borders and let the game progress from there, developing your empire internally.

How well Stellaris segues into the second phase of gameplay is something I’ll be finding out in the next few hours of play. Meanwhile, though, my early impressions are very positive. The early exploration and colonization driven gameplay is a lot of fun, the randomized tech progression mixes things up nicely, and the choices you make designing your empire have a huge impact on your experience. So far it’s pretty much what I wanted from a Paradox Space Strategy game.

Not that there’s no room for expansions to richen the experience. Diplomacy in particular has lots of room for elaboration. But following the typical Paradoix model we can expect that Stellaris will get robust DLC support over the next several years, turning it into as deep and engaging — and opaque — a space game as we’ve seen anywhere. It’s good to get in on the ground floor of that.

On the flip side, by its very nature Stellaris is Paradox’s most approachable title, because everyone starts with just one planet and can grow and develop, with the player learning the game as she goes, before rubbing shoulders with other empires. In Europa Universalis IV, for example, you really shouldn’t start playing with a small country with hardly anything to manage; you’ll have few options and powerful neighbors that will obliterate you after a single mistake. Stellaris completely avoids that issue.

I’m going to keep playing and I am likely to have more thoughts down the line as my game matures. My first impression is very positive — if you don’t opt to pick it up now at full price, keep an eye on it when it goes on sale. If you enjoy space 4X at all, even if you think it stalls in the mid-game, Stellaris is still going to provide some quality hours.

Good News & Bad News

It was an eventful week for MMORPG fans. In bad news, EverQuest Next was scuttled by Daybreak and 40% of Wildstar’s staff was given the golden toe by NCSoft in preparation for that game’s looming closure. In better news, Black Desert Online launched with a decent bit of buzz and the live stream of Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen surprised a lot of people.

The abortion of EQNext is symptomatic of two things, I think. One is the obvious haplessness of Daybreak, a company displaying no clear signs of knowing what it is doing at any level. The other is the relative decline in what I’m forced to call “Immersive World RPGs.” The perception is that there’s no longer a market for triple-A games of this kind. This may or may not actually be true, but with the cancellation of EQNext I can’t think of any that are in development in the west. Even the extant games are slowly shuttering or evolving away from the immersive world.

Of course, there are a host of such games brewing at the indie level. Two that I have my eye on are Richard Garriot’s Shroud of the Avatar and Brad McQuaid’s Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen, both of which are slowly progressing under small development teams. In both cases some, shall we say, less than triple-A quality stuff has been shown; the early Pantheon footage was scarily primitive-looking.

But both games are coming along. On Friday, Visionary Realms streamed the first-ever gameplay from Pantheon, live and unscripted. It was “pre-Alpha,” whatever that even means anymore, and while we only saw a small part of the world, the game has obviously come a very long way indeed.

For one thing, it looks terrific. The Unity 5 engine has really come through here, and this looks as good as anything I have seen using that platform. The character and spell animations are obviously still placeholders (which the devs mention) and there was some graphical glitching but overall it looks tremendous.

More impressive, though, was the actual gameplay. Six devs just playing, with no cheats, and hashing out strategies on the fly, first for clearing out an Orc camp and then penetrating a cult’s mysterious sanctum. The novel Pantheon mechanics of colored mana and atmospheres were on display, but the coolest thing was that stuff happened that the devs didn’t expect. I cannot overemphasize the importance of this point; true emergent gameplay isn’t even seen as desirable in MMOs anymore. The Pantheon team appears to get why it’s awesome and why it belongs in an Immersive World RPG.

Welcome to the Silverlands

I am currently designing a fantasy RPG called Silverlands. In brief, the game is built on the d20 chassis but hacked to use a 2d10 resolution mechanic and with many major subsystems completely redesigned.

While it’s not my design goal, it may be helpful to think of Silverlands as an “answer” to the OSR that’s seen through the lens of Rolemaster, Chivalry & Sorcery, Traveller, RuneQuest and other RPGs of the late 70s and early 80s, and even later RPGs designed in a similar or referential style. D&D itself is, to be sure, a strong influence as well, and the uttermost foundations still, I think, carry a strong familial resemblance.

While also not my intent, you may also see Silverlands as a “fantasy heartbreaker,” and I’m completely comfortable with that label. It is a personal “desert island game,” that I have wanted to design, and in some sense have been designing, for many years. It is an very personal project, made for me, and if other folks get something from it, so much the better. Questions about potential future publication plans are not pertinent at this time, although it’s my intention to eventually distribute it in some manner.

About the Game

Characteristics are rolled randomly, but in due time I intend to add some kind of deterministic system for setting the scores. The game has classes (Vocations) and character levels, but also has a loose but expansive skill system. Character generation is a “light lifepath” affair, where a big chunk of your starting abilities come from your background and the basic training of your chosen vocation. (You can think of these as level -1 and 0, if you like, although they aren’t framed that way.) You also fully develop your character for level 1 before starting play. The level range is purposefully tight: 1-9 is the general range, and anything beyond it is in Demigod territory.

Complexity

I am very cognizant of the issues surrounding undue rules complexity. At the same time, though, I personally prefer juicier games when it comes to fantasy RPG. These rules will try to strike a balance between the two extremes, and, once stable, they will not suffer further bloat. In most cases I think that you’ll find a complexity level somewhere between that of D&D 5th Edition and D&D 3.0 — and concerning the latter, I mean only the core rules included in the PHB, not the whole array of rules and supplements. I regard this as an absolute cap on rules density.

When all is said and done, this means that Silverlands should end up being noticably less complicated than the systems in the D&D 3.5 or Pathfinder core books. But it will not be a “light” game.

Progress so Far

The game still has a long way to go; currently I am drafting the mechanics. This is not a book draft, but an outline of how everything works mechanically. I’m calling it the “skeleton.” At the moment the basic core mechanic is hammered out to this level, along with combat and part (but a usable part) of the magic system. Character creation is drafted as well, but again with only a fraction of the planned options.

With that out of the way, let’s start taking a look at specific mechanics, starting with the basics of the game system.

Silverlands Logo 4 SMALL

General Guidelines

The following are generally in effect:

  • When halving or otherwise dividing, always round down unless otherwise specified. (Aside: There will be no such speficication if I can help it.)
  • The game uses D10s in various ways, and d4s for stat generation. I am not opposed to using other kinds of dice, but currently we only use d4 and d10.

The Core Mechanism

Checks are called for when the success or failure of an action is in question. They are rolled on 2d10 and come in several types:

A basic check is made against a Difficulty set by the GM. If a check type is not otherwise specified it is considered a basic check. A table of Difficulty guidelines is provided below. If the check equals or exceeds the Difficulty with his or her final result, the action is a success.

Difficulty Description
12 Trivial
14 Easy
16 Moderate
18 Challenging
20 Difficult
22 Very Difficult
24 Extreme

A contested check or contest is performed against another character or entity’s skill. Both parties roll and add the appropriate modifiers; the roller of the higher total succeeds or is victorious, with the specifics determinedby the GM. If the final result is a tie, it is indeterminate, although one participant may prevail by default, where deemed appropriate by the GM.

An extended check is used for a lengthy action involving several skills. Each skill is rolled individually, and a mix of regular and contested checks may be called for. If any of the checks succeeds, the overall action is successful, but the GM will introduce complications for any checks that fail. These complications can include combat but normally shouldn’t.

The GM can break out of an extended check to perform a regular combat, or can resolve it with a single quick combat check and a quick narration. At the end of the combat the GM can deside whether it was a success or failure based on the results.

A quick battle check can be used when a whole battle needs to be resolved with a single roll. This is a contested check where the two sides add their Quick Battle Bonus (QBB) to the roll. The higher total wins, and each losing participant suffers conditions with levels equal to the difference, along with a consequence determined by the GM. (Aside: Yes, this needs further development; an iteration of it will eventually appear in a set of mass combat rules.)

Regardless of the type of check, a character will add a Skill Bonus (SB) to the roll. This bonus is equal to the number of ranks the character has in the skill plus the modifier of the relevant characteristic. If a skill has multiple characteristics, the lowest modifier is used.