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Apocalypse, Warhammer 40,000 – First Impressions

Ever wanted to recreate the crazy and intense battes of the art of Warhammer 40,000 Universe on your tabletop and still be playable? Well, we’re told Warhammer 40,000: Apocalypse is the game that can help you do just that… assuming you have enough miniatures of course!

Recently Warhammer 40,000: Apocalypse was released and with it a tonne of new hype and excitement that we expect from the community of the world’s best marketed distributor of fantasy & science fiction wargaming miniatures, Games Workshop.

In this article we’re going to take a look at Warhammer 40,000: Apocalypse to see what all the hype is about and what the actual gameplay is like. We’ll address some questions regarding its accessibility to players and outline how hard or easy it is to play. Finally, we’ll look at the costs involved and whether the game is worth the effort and financial commitment to regular players.

warhammer 40,000 apocalypse tabletop war game Games Workshop

History

It turns out that Apocalypse isn’t a new thing at all; way back toward the end of fourth edition of Warhammer 40K (circa 2007) Apocalypse was first released. It was then updated a year later and then again in 2013. I was busy during much for this time, and totally missed anything to do with it!

What is Warhammer 40,000: Apocalypse?

It’s pretty simple if you’re familiar with tabletop wargaming, but if you’re not, here’s the low-down:

Apocalypse is a game system that emulates large battlefields of miniatures and models set in a dark and gritty futuristic science fiction setting. Unlike the regular Warhammer 40,000 game, the system is designed to allow for a huge number of models to be placed on large gaming tables.

The differences between regular Warhammer 40,000 and Apocalypse are a little subtle to new gamers. The games run in a very similar fashion, in that each player takes turns to move and attack with portions of their armies. Armies are drawn up using a points system, with better “veteran” or command type models costing more points than regular or less experienced models. A typical game of Warhammer 40,000 can range from 1000-2000 points. For Apocalypse, the potential points values of the armies can exceed 5000 points or more, depending on the physical size of the gaming table.

warhammer 40,000 apocalypse tabletop war game Games Workshop

What are the Key Differences between Warhammer 40,000 & Apocalypse

Playing a game of Warhammer 40,000 can take several hours, not including the time taken to draw up a points compliant battle force or army. To be fair, few tabletop wargames are quick to setup, and often entire afternoons or evenings are required to play. Looking at these new rules, it seems that a small game of Apocalypse should take no more than a 1-2 hours.

Apocalypse only uses the alternative points system called power level to draw up an army list. This version takes out much of the detailed choices of picking and choosing a force to play. So the footwork to setup a game is reduced in one aspect, but perhaps more if you take into account the much larger forces required to play.

If we’re to believe the game runs faster as detachments of units, instead of individual units or character models, then we can assume that the game has the potential to be very quick for smaller sized as well.

warhammer 40,000 apocalypse tabletop war game Games Workshop

Six and twelve sided dice are used to determine when units successfully attack and wound their targets. Interestingly we think power playing antics are removed here, because the game is about huge battles where the individual models do not necessarily make much difference. Thus, most units possess only 2 wounds, which is unheard of for regular Warhammer 40,000 where commanders and huge aliens may have 5 wounds or more all to themselves (now, a commander character has a single wound, as we discovered during our play test).

T wound a successfully hit  target, each unit has a required number to roll on a dice, which is found on the unit data sheet. Cutting out all of the extra work from Warhammer 40,000, the data cards give two very important weapon statistics: Strength Against Personel (SAP) and Strength Against Tanks (SAT). These represent the number you need to roll (or above) to successfully wound your target. Even the smallest weapon has the potential to cause damage to a tank… it’s just very unlikely… or 1 in 12 chance, perhaps!

Players will have to be careful where they place their comanders and warlords (commanders who are specifically character models), otherwise their detchment may find itself without leadership, potentially suffering more losses.

warhammer 40,000 apocalypse tabletop war game Games Workshop

Orders are a way of telling your detachments what to do. They are given in secret at the start of the turn sequence with facedown tokens (to whole detachments instead of to units and characters, one at a time). This implies a level of forward thinking is required by the player to second guess their opponents, and practice their poker face. Where one unit goes, the others in the detachment must follow.

Wounds are given in the form of blast markers, which may increase in size the more a unit receives, for example, two minor blast markers go up to one large. Interestingly however, damage is not calculated until the final phase of the turn sequence, meaning both players get to take actions and execute their plans before wiping each other out in sequence – this is a HUGE selling to point to regular players who have ever experienced defeat before even taking a turn! Units are permitted a save and, if at the end of the damage phase, they have more blast markers than wounds, they are removed from the battle as losses.

The game system looks promising. Are we perhaps going to see more of this style of game system from Games Workshop? I suspect that a similar version for Age of Sigmar, Games Workshop’s fantasy tabletop wargame, would sell pretty well…

All gaming elements so far suggest fast-paced action and a balanced gaming system…

aspect warrior warhammer warhammer40K

So, is it?

We set up a small game power level of 101 (don’t ask us why!), which equates to somewhere in the region of 2000-2500 points. This isn’t the scale that Apocalypse is designed for, however we felt it’s probably a good size to learn the core concepts of the game and see how smoothly it runs. We had in mind that if all goes well, we could ramp up the power level to somewhere in the region 200 or more another time.

Setup. Play. Findings.

Marines Force:

  • Battalion 3 units of Intercessors lead by a Primaris Lieutenant with a Redemptor Dreadnought.
  • Spearhead detachment of 3 units of Hellblasters and 1 unit of Aggressors lead by a Primaris Captain.
  • 2 Auxillary super heavy detachments; a Knight Errant and an Armiger Warglave.

Ork Force:

  • Battalion of 5 units of Ork Boyz lead by a Big Mek with a Shock-attack-gun
  • Spearhead of 2 units of Flashgitz and a unit of Killakans lead by Captain Badrukk.
  • Auxillary Superheavy stompa, Da Hunger of Gork.

As the marine player, I had in my force 3 warlords: the big mech, the captain and the leutenant. This was important for assets, which are cards drawn at the start of each turn depending on the number of warlords in your force. Three cards (to a hand size of 10 maximum) seemed like a good thing.

warhammer 40,000 apocalypse games workshop tabletop war game miniatures citadel

Setup Time

It took us mere minutes to setup up the game board and deploy our detachments. Since detachments have to always be within 12 inches of their commander, the choices are limited by the space you have on the board. We used Games Workshop’s Battle Board, 4 pieces by 2 (about 8ft by 4ft) with a heavy scattering of scenery from some KillTeam box sets.

Playing Time

Starting, including all the rules checks and doublechecks, it took us 2 hours to play a game with a power level of 101. If this was regular Warhammer 40,000 it would equate to a game of 2500 points, which would have taken double that time, in my humble opinion. Once we are comfortable with the rules however, I think we could have compressed this game into an hour if we pushed it.

This timing is important, as not all players are capable of devoting 4-5 hours for a game (family, work and life get in the way!)

warhammer 40,000 apocalypse games workshop tabletop war game miniatures citadel

Frequency of rules checks

Not as frequent as we initially thought. There was some discussion and checking up on close-quarter fighting and shooting, along with some clarification on the separate rules for large targets (apparently on the order to Charge gartangs and the like are allowed to shoot as well as use melee weapons). But otherwise we got on OK.

Game Feel

Quite good. It took a while to get out of the regular Warhammer 40,000 mindset.

Having won 4 out of 5 initiative rolls, I’m not convinced it’s such a great advantage, which is good because theres nothing worse than getting out maneuvered twice in a row! The players take it in turns to activate detachments meaning the initiative is only gained from certain parts of the battlefield – essentially I got to shoot first, which isn’t a great advantage as all damage and moral checks are carried out AFTER all detachments have been activated. But this doesn’t mean the mechanics is useless. Sometimes moving closer or ruther away can be usefull if you move a unit out of enemy range, wasting their Aim order!

Fooling your opponent can be a great feeling: at one point the relentless green horde was getting closer, and the marines had done a good job of aiming and shooting in previous turns. In the following round I expected the Orks to be in charge range so I gave the detachment the order to move… falling back and reorganizing the firing line was not expected and gained the marines a further turn of rapid fire next time around.

A minor bad point: If a unit misses, all the models in the unit miss if they share the same weapon type! Several times the Hellblasters were useless, by missing completely. However, if we had less but bigger units the marine units would gain 2 dice instead of 1 to roll to hit. Must remember that next time!

Battle Results

The marines won, but only after taking a pasting. It felt one sided until the gargantuan was destroyed. Even then, the Dreadnought was not very effective at taking out infantry with its huge load of automatic weapons. May have to see if Games Workshop errata some of the stats!

Blast markers are not the end of the world, but for infantry a large blast marker means they use a single 6-sided dice to roll for their save. This means marines, the tough human monsters in implacable armour have a 1 in 6 chance of surviving, even it was a hail of Gretchin shot! It did make them feel paper thin, but then it was likely worse for the Ork boyz! Balanced still, so not a negative point as such.

And I had a stack of useless asset cards applicable only to the destroyed Knight Errant!

Quick to Learn?

As regular gamers, Warhammer 40,000 Apocalypse is very quick to learn. To master the game may take a couple of attempts but we found that second guessing your opponents choice of orders brings a level of cunning that you don’t often get to see in tabletop war games. If you’ve ever played Fantasy Flight’s X-Wing, you’ll get what we mean… sometimes you second guess too far! However, the anticipation and excitement has certainly been more frequent in the Apocalypse games we played.

Accessibility for Players

We found the game is very reminiscent of the old Epic scale Warhammer 40,000, only at the 28mm scale, which means if you want to harness the power of this quick to learn game, you’ll get the most out of it with a lot of miniatures. HOWEVER we’ve found it’s actually very fun to play with smaller forces as it cuts out a lot of the shenanigans you can get from some less reputable players. For smaller games, it also makes each game VERY quick.

So, accessible to new players? Only if you can borrow a lot of miniatures, otherwise quite good fun and impressive if you’re trying to get a friend into the hobby.

To regular players? Yeah, its not bad (see Cost & Worth below).

warhammer 40,000 apocalypse tabletop war game Games Workshop

Cost & Worth

Warhammer 40,000: Apocalypse will set you back £60 in the UK. This buys you the rulebook, six and twelve sided dice and some 300 command cards. You also get 6 sheets of tokens which act as your blast markers and issued orders. We’re going to say this now: for essentially paper and card, this seems overpriced. Dice are cheaper than a bag of chips online, even twelve-sided ones, and massed produced card isn’t going to break the bank. So purely on a boxed goods scale, you’re not getting much if you compare it to say, a regular adventure board game complete with miniatures.

That said, if you’re the sort of player who has spent hundreds of pounds creating a large battle force of miniatures bought from Games Workshop, this isn’t exactly going to break your bank either. Personally, I think GW could have gone down the same route as they did with Age of Sigmar and provide the basic rules for free with optional physical purchases, but I’m not here to make money.

 

 

That said, the data cards required to play your chosen forces are actually free to download, so you don’t need to go out and buy any army specific literature to play.

If you have a gaming gang or group, £60 spread across 4 players is only £15 each… some people drink that in an evening! And to be fair, playing this game with mulitple allied forces could be quite good fun as friendly players can take charge of a detachment each.

As for the worth. If you have a lot of miniatures already and want to use absolutely all of them at the same time, or perhaps you and a few friends want to play a game pitting 2 vs 2 players, this is likely to be a good choice because the game is much quicker. It’s much more tactical from a birds eye view too, perfect to play if you’re into hushed combat analysis and poker faces around the gaming table.

To Conclude

We think the game is good, but not amazing. It addresses some of the issues that slow down the regular Warhammer 40,000 game system and honestly, if you have the miniatures to make it up, it would be ideal to play as an introduction for interested friends. That said, it’s quite an investment by nature of the huge amount of miniatures and models required to play, but as we point out, you can play it on a much smaller scale if required.

So, I say this, as I say about most Games Workshop products: If you’re already a fan this game will be worth playing, especially if shared across a gaming group. If you’re not into the hobby yet, this is an easier sytem to learn but with much more outlay financially.

Otherwise, this game system is a step forward for Games Workshop!

Now, if they could just address the high pricing issue… 😉

Ferris, CC
If you’re interested in creating your own terrain, I’ve got a few links to some how-to articles, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, along with an article on where to get materials and tools for terrain building (more beneficial if you’re based in the UK but helpful for the US, Canada and most of Europe).

You can find me @FerrisWrites for Twitter,

Our Facebook Page!

(All images borrowed from Games Workshop and Out of print products, unless otherwise stated.)

The 9th Age: A New Warhammer Fantasy Battles?

A month ago I wrote an article on why I was giving Age of Sigmar (AoS) a second look. The response was brilliant – we managed 9K hits with a variety of reader interaction. Some of that interaction was, understandably, hateful. I addressed the comments, which seemed to suggest I was being paid to paint Games Workshop (GW) in a brilliant light.

In the same section of comments however, I was approached by Piteglio, founder of Veil of the Ages, one of many 9th Age supporting companies. I was asked, assuming I was impartial, whether I would review the 9th Age, a community created by not-for-profit groups of tabletop war-gaming fans.

The 9th Age website has just been published with its new, atmospheric and well presented website, so it makes sense to take a look and see what all the fuss is about.

So, welcome to what will be a 3 part series reviewing the 9th Age. In the first part I’m going to be looking at the game association as a whole, discovering its foundations and ethos. I’ll also be looking at the rules and judging them for how accessible they are to veteran and new war-gaming players.

In the later articles of this series, I’ll be looking into the theme and world lore and taking a look at some of the army lists available. My focus there will be comparing Games Workshop’s old High Elves to the Highborn Elves of 9th age, and the old Empire to that of the Sohnstal Empire.

Finally, I’ll get a few games under my belt and draw some comparisons to the old Warhammer Fantasy Battles in the last episode. This should be the culmination of the mini-series and maybe somewhere along the way I’ll convince you to try a few games for yourself!

9th Age warhammer fantasy battle Games Workshop WFB tabletop gaming wargame Fantasy

What is 9th Age

In some western cultures, if you cannot find exactly what you’re looking for, you should have a go at making it yourself – this is the core of the foundation of the 9th Age. When GW shut down their much loved Warhammer Fantasy Battles the gaming community around it had an emotional time. When Games Workshop introduced Age of Sigmar many of the players felt aggrieved, and to some degree I agree with them.

To challenge the absence of a much loved tabletop war-game, a small group of self-motivated players decided to revive their fondness of WFB by creating something of their own. 9th Age was born.

In a nutshell, The 9th Age is:

  • a tactical, rank and file tabletop battle emulation in a pseudo-medieval fantasy world,
  • maintained by hundreds of passionate players from all over the world,
  • totally free to get your hands on the rule-books and supplements, forever!
  • designed with precision for tournament gamers, yet easy to access for casual and narrative.

Initial Misconception

When I first heard of 9th Age, we played Warhammer and Dungeons & Dragons (among other games). When we realised that the 8th Edition WFB was going to be the last, we started looking for something alternative. One housemate stumbled upon 9th Age. 

The documents and rules were still in their infancy and there was a quick series of changes which made us feel the game was not yet stable. We dropped 9th Age and investigated different ideas (or in fact, kept playing 8th edition WFB).

Looking back, we should have realised that 9th Age was still in its infancy and going through a series of developmental changes, some of which I suspect was hindered by in depth balancing and potentially some copyright laws.

9th Age warhammer fantasy battle Games Workshop WFB tabletop gaming wargame Fantasy

So, who are 9th Age?

The 9th Age was created and developed by 6 competitive fantasy battle enthusiasts, coming from 5 countries around the globe. That was 2015, now 270 members work towards developing the 9th Age across 29 countries. That’s pretty staggering.

What is most remarkable is that this association of like minded enthusiasts work for free. No one, at any level, earns money or fame for their hard work. There is no formal company and members are not expected to work to hard deadlines. Of course, some of them have experience in their particular areas, but as a whole, the association is free running, headed by an executive board who put the whole lot into one efficient package.

Why is this important, I hear you ask?

Unlike like most war-games, 9th Age is not run for profit – they don’t even supply miniatures for the game they created and develop which, importantly for the players of this game, means the tabletop war-game is balanced: there is no need to create better or tougher armies to sell alongside newly released miniatures. No power creep here (looking at you, Games Workshop!) It also inspired a huge run of small independent miniature model companies, creating a staggering amount of new and unique looking tabletop miniatures.

Best of all, it means the army book / army lists are inspired by the background, the world setting. Imagine, a world rich in lore and strife with well represented armies and politics? Seems too good to be true doesn’t? Well, it took a number of years for Warhammer Fantasy Battles to develop its own rich lore, so why can’t 9th Age? In fact, 9th Age has more people working on it than probably ever entered the boardrooms of Games Workshop HQ (uncited opinion).

9th Age warhammer fantasy battle Games Workshop WFB tabletop gaming wargame Fantasy

Armies & Factions

Enough about who and what, let’s take a look at the game itself! I’ll address some of the questions I have or have been asked:

Can I play my favorite fantasy army?

Yup. Totally.

Currently 9th Age have 16 “army books” to play with. Each one is free and available from the 9th Age download page. They are currently all black and white, and mostly easy-print PDF documents with a couple of more detailed files as optional downloads. Did I mention they were free? Check out the Sylvan Elves full colour PDF – its big, but there is some seriously good artwork and background information there!

The list of available army lists include (in no particular order):

  1. Daemon Legions
  2. Sylvan Elves
  3. Undying Dynasties
  4. Warriors of the Dark Gods
  5. Beast Herds
  6. Dread Elves
  7. Dwarven Holds
  8. Empire of Sonnstahl (think state troops)
  9. Highborn Elves
  10. Infernal Dwarves
  11. Kingdom of Equitaine (think knights & peasants)
  12. Ogre Khans
  13. Orcs & Goblins
  14. Saurian Ancients (think lizard nations)
  15. The Vermin Swarm (think rats, rats everywhere)
  16. Vampire Covenant

On top of this list, there’s also the Asklanders and the Makhar which are supplementary armies (currently I believe they are under review). There’s also a quick guide to playing your first game, spell cards, printable terrain and an arcane compendium among other helpful and totally free downloads to get you started. Finally, you can get everything in one solid document, but I wouldn’t recommend you print it out…

Are the different armies up to date or will they change quickly?

With the exception of the last two (Asklanders & Makhar) all of the books are up to date. More importantly, they will not be changed for around 4-5 years, meaning tournament players can rely on stability and casual players benefit from being able to collect and use only what they want.

9th Age warhammer fantasy battle Games Workshop WFB tabletop gaming wargame Fantasy

Game Mechanics

So this is for me where the nostalgia really started to kick in. You remember when you first picked up a book for Warhammer Fantasy Battles and you had no idea how it worked, but you had the feeling that you were holding something esoteric and world changing?

That’s what I got from perusing the game mechanics. From what I could tell, everything was there that a much younger (90’s) version of myself became totally enthralled in. Armies are built based on a points system (or an amount of gold, if like me you prefer a more narrative theme), with elite troops costing more than standard troops. The design of the army starts around the leader and their entourage, with a percentage of your points allowed for certain types of troops.

The commander type characters are faceless compared to Warhammer, because the 9th Age tries to keep them realistic. They even point this out in their design statement: characters should be “folklore heroic” and not literal monsters of the battle field, something which unbalanced the later editions of Warhammer Fantasy Battles.

How hard /easy is it to learn?

This is a good question. If you are or were a player of Warhammer Fantasy Battles, you will feel totally at home. 9th Age harkens to the days where Warhammer Fantasy Battles was still balanced and made sense to the majority of its players. With the exception of names and phrases in the rule-book, I would argue 9th Age holds all the robust parts of Warhammer, with some better modifications for clarity and brevity on the tabletop. And of course, the game follows a clear turn / round system which most tabletop gamers will be comfortable with.

For totally new players, it can be quite a steep learning curve, but then so too were most tabletop war games of the time (with the exception of games like Age of Sigmar Skirmish, which I believe is a great introductory game to tabletop war-gaming). If you’re totally new to war-gaming, I suggest you read the next section.

9th Age warhammer fantasy battle Games Workshop WFB tabletop gaming wargame Fantasy

How accessible to new players is it?

Fortunately, there is a 9th Age beginners quick-guide, which talks you through the basics in easy to digest chunks. All you need is some paper, pencils, measuring rule and dice to get your started. This really appealed to me because you don’t need to spend any money before you start the game. You could set a game up on your bedroom floor or kitchen table with some cut-out squares and some random items to act as terrain. So long as you label your paper and cut them to the right size to represent units, you’ve not got anything to hold you back.

Running alongside the quick start guide there are some example army lists which you can print out and use. All the choices are made for you, so if you don’t know how to create a balanced army, you can use these. It’s a bit like using pre-made characters in Dungeons & Dragons – everything you need is there.

So you really don’t need to spend time buying, gluing and painting anything until you’re absolutely sure you want to get involved. It also means you get to try out different army compositions or entirely new factions. For me, this is great because there was nothing worse than buying into a Warhammer army and then realising they were completely under powered and your chances of success were limited based on your poorly informed decision!

I may need help creating one those army lists…

It has been pointed out in the comments that the 9th Age is fully compatible with BattleScribe (we reviewed Battle Scribe a while ago, here). BattleScribe is community driven and contains data for just about every tabletop game that requires army building lists. If you’re new to war-gaming, check it out, it’ll make you 9th Age army lists much quicker and likely more accurate too (and you can export and print out those lists for ease, with all the data you need).

Is it a tournament game or a casual game?

It seems, from what I can tell, to be a game designed for both. As I mentioned previously tournament players will enjoy the precision of the game, while not locking out new or casual players. You can play small games and large games wherever you are.

Where can I buy miniatures for 9th Age?

The other great thing about 9th Age is that you can use whatever miniatures you like, so long as they fit the scale, which is around 28mm miniatures. As I mentioned earlier, there is a tonne of new businesses creating miniatures in the glowing wake of 9th Age’s comet. I’ll link you to their community created list of potential sellers and distributors.

Their online magazine also has a spot-light for gamer’s armies, in which it shows how some players mix and match from different model companies to create their own unique looking forces. That said, if you have a preferred supplier of miniatures, then feel free to buy solely from them. That’s the great thing, you don’t have to buy from a monopolized supplier – you get to shop around to fit your own budget. This is doubly so for old Warhammer players, since you’ve already got your armies so you don’t need to get more!

Auf deutch, mo poppet, grazie!

English not your first language? Don’t worry – I forgot to mention that the 9th Age is translated in several languages, including:

English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and Polish…

With work being carried out for translations into Chinese (presumably Mandarin), Russian, Serbian and potentially Korean. Again, this is staggering because all this work is being done for free – it’s amazing what people can do when they share their passion for something.

9th Age warhammer fantasy battle Games Workshop WFB tabletop gaming wargame Fantasy

Final Thoughts

  • So far I’m getting a good vibe from 9th Age.
  • It feels much more robust than it did several years ago.
  • There is a tonne of intra- and inter-faction choices, meaning you can build an army up that fits your play style or preferred narrative theme.
  • It’s completely free, and despite this, has a very solid feeling to it, which promises fair, balanced and a fun gaming experience.
  • It seems to have the finesse for tournament or competitive players.
  • It’s accessible to brand new players
  • The quick start guide is easy to follow and you’ll be playing your first game(s) within an hour if you put your heads together.

So, will the 9th Age still have me keen to learn more? Do the factions suitably feel like the much loved armies of our youth? What does the game actually play like, how long and quickly can you pick it up..?

That’s it for part one! If you’ve got any questions for the next article, where we’ll be looking at the world lore and the factions in more detail, leave a comment and I’ll try to address them as much as I can!

Here’s a sneak peek to some of the Lore we’ll be covering…

9th Age warhammer fantasy battle Games Workshop WFB tabletop gaming wargame Fantasy

All questions for part two and three. I’ll keep you posted!

If you’re interested in creating your own terrain, I’ve got a few links to some how-to articles, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, along with an article on where to get materials and tools for terrain building (more beneficial if you’re based in the UK but helpful for the US, Canada and most of Europe).

You can find me @FerrisWrites for Twitter,

Our Facebook Page!

Controversial Age of Sigmar article here Give Sigmar a Chance: Why I’m giving Games Workshops ‘Age of Sigmar’ a Second Look…!

Veil of the Ages 9th Age wargaming

And finally, as a thank you for providing information and a bit of impetus to keep writing, I’ll provide links to Veil of the Ages by Piteglio! 😉

Veil of the AgesSuccessful Kickstarter, Facebook group!

 

 

 

(All images taken from The 9th Age website and forum, they do not belong to the Creator Consortium or their writers and contributors, July 5, 2019)

Basic Leather Working 101

Introduction

When we started the Creator Consortium, we wanted to share how we did things with the world. We wanted to help people get creative and crafty, whether you’re using your hands to sculpt and create physical things or wanted to create fantastic adventures around the coffee table – we were going to be there to give you an idea of where to start.

We’ve not done much of the physical crafting yet, so this is where we start.

This is going to be a three part series looking at how we craft leather from start to finish. The first part is going to be an overview of leather; what tools and materials you will need (or later on, want) with some basics planning ideas to keep your feet grounded before making any mistakes.

In future articles I’ll go into detail on how to create masks from leather, with detailed instructions and pictures:

  • By the end of part one you should have a good idea about what tools you will need, with optional extras.
  • By the end of part two you should have a moulded piece of leather in the form of a mask which should (hopefully) fit snugly to your face.
  • By the end of part three you should have a fully coloured and treated mask, ready for your party, masquerade or LARP event.

I may reference previous parts as we go or give you snippets to future parts as they’re required. There may also be some heavy editing of previous articles as I develop this glorified tutorial.

I’ll be exclusively using vegetable tanned leather as it provides us with a variety of choices and techniques. More on this later.

Firstly, I’m going to provide an insight into the uses and types of leather and ask some questions relating to your specific leather project.

Why use Leather?

Leather is a type of old world plastic. If you know how to manipulate it, you can get it to fulfill a variety of functions. There are some considerations before you start your project however: Is leather the best option for your project? Would there be an easier medium for you to use?

Pros:

  • Easy manipulation, no expensive tools or chemicals required
  • Sturdy material that can take some serious mechanical abuse
  • Variety of uses from small items to full costumes
  • Easy to use (when you know how).

Cons:

  • Not very forgiving, expensive mistakes can happen!
  • Requires a good aftercare regime
  • Storage concerns: spores, mold & degradation can prematurely eat and destroy your hard work!

If you still think leather is for you then read on for some further considerations.

herd of cattle in daytime

Environmental Impact

Leather was once locally sourced and used extensively before plastics were introduced. Unfortunately, now being a globalised industry, it comes with its own complications.

Cattle herds are huge in America, who are one of the largest producers of beef and therefore leather. The impact on the environment is several fold – cattle create methane, farmland and agriculture impact the local atmosphere, and global transportation methods create more pollution.

Some methods of curing leather use chromium salts. These salts are toxic to living organisms (they use chromium salts to denature DNA strands in genetic laboratories). Chromium treated leathers are usually more synthetic looking, with near perfect surfaces with (usually) thinner and very supple qualities. Presumably they are cheaper, quicker to make and easier to use in manufacturing.

Composition of Leather

Leather is essentially skin. When vegetable tanned leather is cured it can become rigid (for thicker leathers) or paper like (such as thin goat skins). The curing process essentially removes the water content without cracking the surface, leaving a smooth and rough side and providing many years of age to what should naturally decompose.

Collagen (face cream adverts talk about it all the time) remains present in the leather and it is this which gives the leather its rigidity. When we wet or soaked, cured leather like vegetable tanned leather we re-hydrate the collagen, making it flexible and less brittle. As the leather dries, if we have done our job correctly, the leather should hold its shape, allowing us to craft intricate and ornate pieces of work, such as masks.

Vegetable tanned leather is used by artisans and crafters all over the world for various projects. It is generally coarser and thicker leather but has a host of applications: in some older types of vehicles it is used for fan belts, it is used for safety attire, all weather clothing, and used as armour up until the second world war, it has a host of utility uses for belts, tool holders, satchels and bags. Vellum is still used in the UK to maintain official government records due to its almost ageless qualities – it is so durable that ancient Kings used it to chronicle their lives.

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Types of Leather

There are a variety of leathers out there. I’m going to provide a brief description of the main ones that artisans and small project crafters are more likely to use.

Vegetable Tanned – There is no surface treatment to this sort of leather, meaning it is ideal for tooling and dying. You can wet mould this sort of leather. A wide variety of uses.

Dyed Through Vegetable Tanned – These leathers do not possess  exactly the same qualities as regular natural tanned vegetable as sometimes there can be a dyeing finish, meaning you can’t necessarily carve, tool or wet mould the leather. However it is durable, and looks great for heavy belts and armour.

Splits – the leather is split and the bottom portion is dyed and treated again to create a smooth surface. You’ll find it’s cheaper but it cannot be tooled or dyed again.

Suede Splits – As above, but both sides are treated with the new upper side heavily treated to create a velvety nap. This is a very versatile form of leather but again it cannot be tooled or dyed further. 

Clothing Suede, Nappa, Cow, Pig – Thin, supple and multiple uses but mainly for clothing. It usually comes pre dyed and is not suitable for most types of projects I will cover here. However, it is great for smaller projects that do not require much treatment, such as small clothing items or accessories.

Chamois – This is essentially split sheep skin and is the first thing most people think of when you mention leather. It has a host of uses and is particularly nice for buffing and polishing your car.

Saddlery – The bees knees of leather, this type of leather is pumped to the brim with waxes and dyes. It is incredibly tough and can be very rigid. It is ideal if you’re just cutting armour pieces to shape, but will require thinning at the edges for stitching. Being incredibly tough, it may take a substantial effort to prepare for stitching. People tend to use long rivets instead. You may be able to carve a pattern into it, but you will not be able to tool it.

Kid – for its thinness this type of leather is very strong due to its fine grain. You see it made into wallets or book bindings due to its fine but mighty nature.

Upholstery Hides – Huge hides! These make a great base for leather if you’re making large volumes. Again it cannot be carved or tooled, but it can be cheap if you bulk buy. I’ve made tabards from this sort of leather and studded those tabards with thicker leather plates to create simple armour.

Crafting Tools

You could really go to town and spend a lot of money to buy a huge variety of tools. In the early stages of any craft, you should only get the minimum you need to get by. If you have a precision craft knife, a stanley knife, a steel rule and some paper, pens and pencils you’ll get on without a hitch. Optionally, you could look at getting some of the following tools, but these are really for slightly more complicated projects. Where possible, I’ve provided a “cheap-cheat” alternatives, but you’ll find that getting the right tool for the job does have an impact as you advance.

My list of tools apply mostly to using vegetable tanned leather, if you’re using a different type of leather you may need a variety of different tools.

For Cutting Leather…

Cutting Knives – these are really cheap from most hobby and craft stores. Stanley knives or retractable knives and precision knives have different uses: Use precision knives to cut finer details and complicated shapes, such as eye holes for masks, and retractable knives for cutting big blocks or chunks of leather out.

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Metal Rule – this is, for me, an essential piece of kit for cutting leather shapes. It should go without saying that a metal rule will not get cut up like a plastic one. More importantly, it should have some form of guard to avoid cutting your fingers. When cutting leather, you will likely apply pressure, meaning that if you slip… well it won’t just be a plaster (band aid) required to hold your fingertips in place.

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Hole Punch – it’s not technically cutting leather, but a hole punch is pretty useful. You can get small kits which have various sized punches which you swap out and screw into place. You’ll need a mallet or hammer to use this. Avoid the type that is hand punched with a wheel of different sized punches – it just doesn’t work as well.

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For Carving and Tooling Leather…

Swivel Knife – this is a unique looking knife that looks a bit like a flat headed screwdriver. Swivel knives are used to cut and carve patterns into leather. You don’t need to go nuts here because using a swivel knife takes practice and patience. Some people get the knack of it early on. If you want to practice carving leather without buying one, get a small flat headed screwdriver and try it on a scrap piece of leather. More on this later.

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Image taken from LePrevo Leathers, http://www.leprevo.co.uk

Bevel / Foot Stamp – this little tool is used in conjunction with the swivel knife. After you have cut a line with the swivel knife you can use the bevel stamp (sometimes called a foot) to push one side of the cut down with a small mallet. The process involves moving the foot along the line while tapping the end with the mallet as you go in one smooth process. The result is an almost 3-D appearance. This is the basic technique for people wishing to tool leather and only really works on vegetable tanned leathers.

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For Stitching Leather…

Needles – you can get these very cheaply from haberdasheries. For working with leather you’re going to need thick needles with a larger eyelet hole. This is because simple cotton thread is too small for stitching leather pieces together. If you can afford it, an automatic stitching awl will save you a lot of time and effort, but they do cost more than just needles and thread.

Thread – thicker thread, ideally waxed will be suitable for most leather projects. Thicker threads will be less likely to cut into the hole they are threaded through, meaning you will add life to your final piece. If it is waxed, it will also not rot anywhere as quickly and provide a level of waterproofing to the holes it’s stitched through.

Pricking Awl – this nasty looking device is basically a pointed blade on the end of a handle. It will look like a vicious prison shank. They are used to create tiny cut marks which act as a guide for stitching. They also allow the needle to pass through the leather much easier than if you were trying to punch the leather with the stitching needle. I would not recommend stitching leather without first punching the holes with a pricking awl!

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For Colouring / Dyeing and Finishing Leather

Dyes – There are a variety of ways of colouring leather. The obvious method is to use leather dyes, which are alcohol based and miscible in water (meaning you can thin them down). I use Fiebings leather dye, which come in a variety of colours and shades. Leather dyes wet the leather, so you need to be careful with water moulded leather projects (which I will cover later).

Paints – Alternatively you could use acrylic paints, but these have a habit of cracking as they dry as solids. To avoid this, you can use flexible acrylic paints that contain natural resins or flexi-paints which are made with rubber or latex components. If you’re making something that is not expected to bend, you can just use regular acrylic paints, but I would suggest you water them down and work in two or more thinner layers.

Finishes – You are going to need to add something extra if you’re hoping to take your leather outside or use it for anything other than for display. This is really important if you’re going to use your piece in all weather, such as for LARP events. Even in the summer weather, you will need to protect the colours that you’ve so lovingly applied. Personally, I use a two or more layers of Carnauba wax cream and the thinner but highly waterproof resolene finish.

In conjunction these will waterproof and provide some level of flexibility to your piece, preventing excess moisture going in whilst stopping the leather from drying out and cracking. These make great aftercare materials too, so if you get into making expensive kit for LARP, it may be wise to sell the finishers alongside the main product.

Paint Brushes & Rags – depending on the size of your leather piece, you are going to need to apply that dye or paint somehow. For small pieces such as wallets, belts, scabbards and masks you can get away with artist brushes, for larger surface areas such as armour you may want to invest in a spray gun (you can buy these from model shops and may prove cheaper for short term projects). Rags are rags at the end of the day. Something like dishcloths don’t tend to come with a tonne of loose fibers so they won’t leave marks as you buff the leather up.

Optional pieces include:

Edge Smoother – this little wooden device is great at deburing the edges of your leather. Running it up and down the edge, with the leather in the nook will slowly polish and smooth the edge, making your final piece look cleaner and more professional. They can be expensive, so shop around for cheaper ones – after all, it’s a piece of carved wood.

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Boarder / Edge Cutter – this little device will add border edges to your leather, which can make a piece look finished and also carve a smooth line along the borer into which you can punch holes or run a stitching wheel into for later stitching… which saves time and effort…

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Where to Begin

So let’s assume you have all of your tools, paints and finishes ready. You’ve got your leather ready to go. But where on earth do you start? Well, I have two very important pieces of advice that you should always consider for every project you ever start.

Dream BIG, but think small

It is the best advice you can possibly get when I say: start small.

Leather is unforgiving in that if you make a mistake, you won’t be able to hide it. Unlike fabric where you could stitch a secret piece in, or hide a mistake behind a fold, leather is generally too cumbersome or thick for quick fixes. Of course, you could weather a mistake to make it look deliberate if you wanted an overall finish to match.

So, stay small for your first project. This will give you a feel for how leather behaves when you’re working with it. With that experience you can move to larger projects later.

Refine your idea with Cardboard

My next advice will also save you time and money: create a mockup piece first.

In my early days I had very little money so I had to be thrifty with my leather and consumables. Cutting out pieces of cardboard from cereal boxes and seeing how my design folded, glue or stitched saved me a lot of time and pain.

Buying your Leather & Tools

This is the hard bit.

If you live in the UK, you can get your supplies from eBay, but I would suggest you have a look at LePrevo Leathers. They are a large supplier but they are friendly and helpful people.

For other sellers of tools, you can get everything you need on eBay fairly cheaply. Most of it will be made in China, but if you’re starting out, you shouldn’t spend a fortune unless you’re absolutely certain you want to commit to this craft. Otherwise, shop around.

If you’re elsewhere in the world, you will likely have more local suppliers. Particularly in Asian and American nations, you’ll have the likes of Tandy Leather. If you’re in the UK, avoid Tandy Leather, it is generally over priced under the facade of being user and newbie friendly. That said, if you’ve got cash to throw around, go ahead!

(That said, they have supposedly repriced everything, so maybe have a sneak peek)…

So that’s it for now, in the next week or so there will be part two ready to go. I’ll link it at the bottom of this page and notify via our Facebook page, twitter account and likely various other media platforms. Alternatively, subscribe to us to get notifications!

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Next in the series we will look at a project in more detail, with steps on how to prepare and cut your leather to make a mask. It’s not rocket science and I’m sure there will be others with different ideas – that’s fine, lets put our heads together!

Until the next episode!

Mr Ferris

Themeborne: Those Rising Dark Stars…

If you’re familiar with Themeborne and Escape the Dark Castle, you can jump straight to the section entitled “Escape the Dark Sector!”, there’s a nifty banner to help you find it!

A couple of years ago I was cruising through Kickstarter town when I came across some great looking, creepy and nostalgic artwork. I investigated, sipping my breaktime tea to find a small tabletop card game… a very simple, pleasing to the eye game.

I read deeper into this game, Escape the Dark Castle (EtDC), and fell in love with it – at this point I hadn’t even played it, or read the rules enough to fully understand them… because it did something that most new games these days fail to do…

Create an immersive atmosphere.

Fast forward a year or so and the box lands at my door. I was surprised, because the game fit into a relatively small box, but that didn’t matter, not all great things come in huge packages (know what I mean?)

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EtDC was made and published by Themeborn. Who are Themeborne, and what about their game makes it so engaging?

Themeborne are a small design studio located in Nottingham, UK. They have a small portfolio of games on their website, but it is one that is growing. Three individuals, each with very different skills as either a writer, artist and musician make up the studio. Whoever they are, it seems to create a perfect blend of creativity. Thomas Pike, Alex Crispin and James Shelton put their heads together and created this atmospheric and easily engaged card game.

They’re exploding onto Kickstarter again, this time for a space themed game, a spiritual successor to their first, with Escape the Dark Sector – more on this later!

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So what is Escape the Dark Castle?

Imagine waking up in a cell, in the dark. Perhaps you’ve been there for months or years suffering torture and starvation. One day, the door to your cell is open. Several others blink as they walk out of their cells. Now, how do you escape?

With this premise, player’s characters encounter situations as they flee, sometimes given choices and other times being forced to fight monsters or jailors. The game is based on a deck of well presented cards, with the players either taking it in turns to reveal the next card or deciding amongst themselves who should draw the next.

These cards acts as chapters in their escape, detailing the story as they sneak, run and fight their way through various chambers and obstacles.

Specialist 6-sided dice are used to determine survival, with each character, such as the Bishop or the Cook, having their own character cards and special dice. When fighting or struggling to overcome an obstacle, the dice are rolled against the “chapter dice” which act as a randomised challenge. If your dice roll matches one of the chapter dice, you can remove it, hopefully whittling the monster away to move onto the next chapter… or die trying!

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Not equal, however – the dice are spit into might, wisdom and cunning and each character will have a better chance at rolling one or more of these attributes, meaning some combinations of characters can hinder the escape.

The chapter cards are drawn at random during game setup, meaning there is almost limitless possibilities in the escape story. Expansions to the game, which came out this year, means there are even more cards to randomly create the story.

And finally, as your make your get-a-way, you will encounter one of several special end of game enemies, each acting differently to immolate, terrify or devour the escapees.

The chances are you’re not going to make it, with less than  25% of our stories resulting in the characters escaping the dark castle! Why? Because if one of the characters dies, everyone loses and chances are that by the time you get to the ultimate encounter, you’ll be struggling already! The odds are not stacked in your favour… and it’s great!

etDC Kit

How does it feel?

Escape the Dark Castle has many great features, which I’ll go over briefly here. The important bit is that combined, these traits create a wonderful, narrative and enjoyable game play reminiscent of Knightmare, a UK kids TV show.

Easy to learn

The rule book is slim and easy to read with direct examples of how to play. The nature of the game focuses on getting started as a group and jumping into your first game. The storytelling aspect of EtDC means that just about everyone and their grandma can learn to play. Each player is encouraged to read out the chapter card they draw and are written in an old sword and sorcery style.

Quick as you like Pace

They say that the game takes 2 minutes to setup and around 30 minutes to play. I disagree with the 30 minutes but only because the game can be played as quickly or as slowly as you like. We’ve played many games of EtDC and frankly, when you’re sat around a table in a dimly lit room, the atmosphere suggests you take it slowly… but as you near the last chapter card, the pace quickens… almost as if you’re running blindly through a dark castle and can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Social, Inclusive, Cooperative

This is a game for everyone (assuming they can read, and even then, others can help). Because it is truly a cooperative game, where everyone or no one is a winner, it’s very easy to get involved. Who draws the next card can be decided democratically, people can look at the state of their character and think: I can’t survive another round of fighting! Others will openly declare that they can take whatever happens next, effectively ‘taking one for the team’ so there’s room for limelight too.

The inclusion of ‘equipment’ cards adds an extra dimension to the escapees: who will take the rusted sword, or who needs to eat the stale bread?

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Even Grandma can learn to play…

Variety

There are 45 chapter cards in the basic game, of which 11 are randomly drawn to create each story. The chances of drawing the same 11 cards each time are so astronomically low that you’d have to play thousands of games to get an exact same combination. But worry not, there are several expansions already out for EtDC and each one adds even more chapter cards, end of game bosses and even starting cards to the story. Cult of the Death Knight, Scourge of the Undead Queen and Blight of the Plaguelord are great additions, each one bringing more themes and story to your escape.

Value

With 3 expansions, a collector’s box, play mat, card sleeves, a book of character deaths (I know, right?) a story book and even an 80’s style musical cassette you’d be forgiven for thinking that the prices are going to match the likes of Fantasy Flight Games. Except that they’re not.

The Core game is priced at £30 – and this is truly all you need. The expansions, which you could buy several years down the line, are priced at £15 each and everything else is £20 or less, depending on what you want – Themeborne have made a great little game that is affordable and so re-playable you’ll never get to experience every possible combination of game.

And now they’re going a step further and taking us into the timeless void of space, where no one can hear you scream…

Escape the Dark Sector!

Escape the Dark Sector

ETDS Logo

Escape the Dark Sector is a science-fiction adventure, pitting the beleaguered crew of a ship against a detention block space station. Again, if anyone dies, the game is over, presumably because the ship can’t be flown without a full crew!

Themeborne suggest that the story and game-play comes from popular science fiction of the 80’s, including Alien, Startrek and Star Wars combined with the literary adventures of the amazing Fighting Fantasy novels and classic Dungeons & Dragons – much like Escape the Dark Castle!

Whether you like all of those titles or not, it seems there is something for everyone.

What’s different?

The core storytelling concepts from EtDC still run through Dark Sector, but Themeborne have introduced several new and easy to learn mechanics to the game and its setup. They make sense too, creating cinematic shootouts with aliens. So what’s new?

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The Setup

The characters are familiar to those who played EtDC – each character has a dice specific to them to roll during actions and combat. However, adding onto the basic character concepts, players can choose ‘cybernetic implants’ which give their characters an edge in certain situations.

The story aspect has been developed to include not one single stack of story chapters and instead is now made up of three acts which, we’re told ups the tempo and intensity the deeper into the escape story the players drive their characters.

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The Gameplay

Since the theme of Dark Sector has catapulted the story into space, so too has the technology level, introducing tactical combat actions and  ranged combat.

Tactical combat actions include shooting, charging, reloading. re-equipping, and flanking, giving the game a much more tactical feel without detracting from the flow of the game. As is the way of Themeborne games, the action to charge is carried over for each character, meaning when one of you declares a charge, everyone has to go with them! It’s all or nothing!

Further, the action to heal some wounds can only be taken by one character at a time. No one gets to sit out for more than a round either. This seems to have upped the challenge! To balance this, certain actions such as reload or flank mean your character is not targeted by the enemy, but at least one character has to choose to fight or shoot. Actions come in the form of cards, where the character dice are placed in order to keep track more easily.

Ranged combat involves equipment and dice specifically related to the weapons, which, we’re told are not always positive effects for the characters. They seem to include ballistic, beam and explosive symbols, so no doubt each one comes with risks!

Some monsters and enemies are affected by or deal special damage depending on the type of ranged attack being made, so teamwork is still at the centre of the game mechanics – pile it up together or decide who should be shooting what weapon and you’ll crack the chapter and be able to move on!

If you want a copy of Escape the Dark Sector you’ll need to back the Kickstarter, there’s less than 40 hours left! Otherwise you can wait for the official release online, sometime next year!

Alternatively, you can grab yourself a copy of Escape the Dark Castle!

You can find the Kickstarter here

Themeborne website and shop

@FerrisWrites for Twitter and our Facebook page.

Exploration in RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons: Putting the Adventure back into Adventuring

It seems that much of the content out there today for role playing games (RPGs) like Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) focus heavily on dungeons and politics or rescuing the village and various other tired troupes. Whether this is the case for you or not, I’ve noticed that many adventures are lacking the element of exploration, which leaves a huge untapped reserve of mystery. Sometimes people refer to this as the sandbox game, where the players are going in their own direction and the GM keeps up, supplying the adventure as the game progresses.

For me, what has been lacking from games over the last several years has been the mystery in exploration. All to often it seems that exploring has been dumbed down or glossed over by the need to keep the story going, to keep the narrative on track, keep the momentum bouncing. This isn’t a bad thing, but the details, the efforts of travelling in a (fantasy) world are completely missed.

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This is a shame, because years ago the old AD&D adventure modules contained heavy elements of exploration, where the players were encouraged to explore and reveal the mysteries of a forgotten land. Adventure modules such as the Isle of Dread (X1, 1981 & 1983), a wilderness adventure designed for beginners back in the day (a long, long time ago) were designed purely with exploration in mind.

In my hunt to recapture the feelings of excitement and wonder (a running theme in my blog articles at the moment) I did a thing. I’ve sailed the ‘net sea, battled excessive blogs and wrangled with the web in the search of good, wholesome and entertaining ideas to make travel and exploration exciting again. Here are my thoughts and the results of my search with some helpful links at the end for your own ‘further reading’ on the subject.

If you’re sitting comfortably, I’ll begin…

Perceived Problems with Exploration

Mention in-game travelling and most players will groan. Understandably, players have not really had a series of exploration adventures that has given them a fun game, even popular digital games such as Skyrim or the classical Baldur’s Gate allow you to travel instantly or in a series of chunks in seconds. But that’s OK, it’s why you’re here reading this article.

Exploration games are said to take their toll on the GM / DM both in preparation and in running the game session. This is a fair point – as the GM of any game you are responsible for hours of planning (or maybe just 30 minutes before the game, if that’s your gig), which often you don’t want to see wasted and unused in the event of player party mistakes. So why would you waste hours of planning on just travelling and exploring new locations?

Finally, keeping the flow and narrative exciting can be a challenge. Inclusive adventures must bring elements to the gaming table where any character of any build or design with even the most jaded of tastes, offers a challenge to each player, a chance in the spotlight.

Are these issues insurmountable? Of course not!

So here are the suggestions I’m putting forward for you, should you ever consider running an exploration themes adventure game of your own.

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Setup & Writing

Character & Plot Hooks

It’s always important to have your players hooked into the concept of the game right from the start. How do you write or plan this sort of thing? Well I’ve written a previous article which you can find here, it gives some suggestions on how to approach a character hook by making the hook relevant to the character, which, hopefully, will entice the player too. As always, it’s best to get a feel for what your player wants from the game, and hook them in based on this information.

It may be that your party is simply travelling overland to get to a place that is uncharted, and the plot of your story is already written. This makes it very easy as the plot hook is the adventure idea you already have.

I’ve written a few examples here to give you an idea:

  • Searching for a missing person(s) of importance: perhaps they were kidnapped and the characters have been hired to locate and return them safely (imagine King Osric’s daughter from the Original Conan film, 1982).
  • Searching for a lost city or civilisation which may hold the key to discovering how to deal with a threat to a characters homelands.
  • Manhunt – a traitor, criminal, dangerous individual or group has evaded the law and must be hunted down to pay for their crimes.
  • The player characters are being persecuted either on their own or with a group of people and have been forced to flee into the wilderness or an unmapped land.
  • Expedition – the player characters are hired to explore the new world and discover its rich resources and lift the veil on its mysteries… and its threats.

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Setting up the Player Party

Every expedition known to man has always had planning at the forefront. Without planning, any expedition is doomed from the moment it takes its first step, leading to a variety of disasters, starvation being the primary one. So it’s important to get your players into the frame of mind that travelling and exploring brings its own dangers. Sure, there will be monsters in the untamed wilds, but losing your food supply or drinking all of your clean water, brings challenges all of their own.

Ask the players some of the following questions before you plan to start your game:

  • How much can your character carry?
  • What food and water supplies will you be taking?
  • Are you equipped for exploration or a dungeon crawl?

An important aspect of any RPG is the role play, above all else it is what glues the game together. Some people find this awkward, but when players have something to talk about, the role play becomes natural. Asking player characters to assume one of several roles in a travelling adventurer party is a great way to overcome this, and also lends itself to more of a game.

These roles are real life examples of what we often overlook during play. In reality, how many of us note down how much of our rations we’re eating? Probably not that many because it’s considered a minor portion of the RPG experience.

Giving the players extra roles also reduces some of the work for GM / DM. By allowing the players to organise themselves and keep track of encumbrance, rations and other supplies, along with mapping duties, it frees up the GM to give a greater insight into surroundings and encounters.

Here are some of the role ideas:

Leader / Voice

The leader is responsible for announcing all final party activity to the GM with regards to direction and pace. Characters can still act in a solo fashion as normal. The leader also consults with and organises the marching order of the other characters present, including any allies that may be travelling with them.

Watchers / Castellan

Let’s face it, you will be stomping through unknown and wild lands, it pays to give someone the task of checking the horizon for trouble, the bushes for traps and the camp for snakes! Watchers and guards are also responsible for finding a suitable place to set camp and how the camp should be organised. For the GM, this gives them time to decide what happens in the night, or if the player party gets surprised.

Navigator / Cartographer

The navigator and cartographer are responsible for guiding the player party on their adventure, keeping a look out for points of interest and landmarks. Their role also involves the blank hex map you will have provided them (more on this later), updating and annotating as they travel. In this way they answer the questions of other characters in a role play manner, rather than relying on the GM to constantly keep checking their notes.

For a character to create a worthy map in game will require some sort of cartographers tools (for D&D) or a surveyor’s kit. Get the players to roll any necessary skill checks to determine the quality of their notes and drawings in case they get lost, or someone else relies on the map in their absence.

Hunter / Quartermaster

Hunters and Quartermasters keep track of resources and the carrying capacity of the party and its allies. Their most important role is to keep track of food and water and find replacements when they feel times are getting desperate. This has a great element of role play as the characters fret over how much they are going to use and what happens if they start to run low.

Generally if the quarter master has no record of something, such as equipment, it does not exist within the party. And if there’s a tonne of things to keep track of, there’s no reason why two characters can’t assume this role together. All characters should have their own equipment list, but the quartermasters will keep a copy of that and update it, especially if one character is lost down a ravine while carrying all of the rope!

(Re)Defining the GMs Role

The GMs primary roles will have lessened from traditional expectations. The key responsibility, other than role playing villains and monsters and refereeing the turn sequence and dice rolls etc, is to keep a track of time. In an exploration adventure keeping a track of time gives the gaming session more purpose and also allows the players to note down exactly what they’ve used up or require more of. It also means the players are told when they are getting tired or possibly feeling the effects of fatigue.

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Friends, Enemies and Adversaries

It pays to have non-playing characters (NPCs) with the player party, at least for some of the exploration, particularly if you think that there may be character deaths likely to happen – you’ll need a way of introducing new characters for the players when this happens.

Adding allies to mix will also give the players some impetus if the motivation dips during play, because allies need help and tasks undertaken which they could not normally do on their own. Here are a few examples of NPCs to keep in mind, depending on the type of exploration adventure you’re writing…

Allies

The expedition financier or their representatives, the young noble out to cut their teeth, the enthusiastic but clueless scribe seeking lost lore, or the mysterious elf apparently seeking to discover the lost homeland of his or her people – these are all NPCs which can give motivation to the players when they are out exploring. It’s probably best if these NPC stay at base camp, several days behind the party. These can provide quests literally or inadvertently and give guidance if the player characters are struggling with concepts.

Collective Adversaries

If you want to quicken the pace of the adventure and give the players some tension when they are making the important choices, you can introduce another adventuring party who are seeking similar goals. This competition can be right behind, or always one step ahead of the ultimate goal, or they can be unfriendly and unhelpful if they’ve managed to get across the ravine but cut the ropes to the bridge!

Perhaps these other adventuring groups need rescuing instead, the price of their impetus or ignorance!

Enemies!

Perhaps the land under exploration is not entirely empty, and savage tribes use it as a hunting ground. Perhaps one of those tribes sees the party as a target for initiation into adulthood or worse, required components in a bloody ritual!

two person riding boat on body of water

Mapping: Hex or no Hex, you’re travelling

Hex maps have been around for decades and carry with them a nostalgic feel for the days of mystery. Whether you like them or not, the humble hex is a great way of mapping out where the player characters have been, are currently and where they will be, because a hex is more dynamic than a square and easier to handle than a circle.

A hex has six sides, allowing you to plan the direction of the party – there are 8 easily identifiable paths the party can take on a hex, using either a flat side of the hex tile or a point of the hex. If you make your map and overlay a series of hex tiles onto it, you can track the adventurer’s progress with distance, speed and direction.

I suggest you start by making a world map, nothing larger than you need for the landmass your adventurers are crossing or exploring. Each hex should cover maybe a half or a full days worth of travelling, so in theory the party is moving one or two hex spaces in a session. This gives you plenty of opportunity to write and pace the adventure.

Look at your map and make a note of the terrain type of each hex, or whichever is more dominant. Terrain types can be forests, plains, desert etc. You can go one level deeper than this to have varieties of these terrain types, such as adding a height or incline like hills and mountains or valleys which can block or provide a line of sight (more on this later).

Once you’ve got this sorted, you can begin to define potential problems with different terrain types – it can be as simple of slowing progress or speeding it up, using important resources such as food and water, or allowing the characters to restock. There may be monsters which lurk in certain parts of the map, such as green dragons in the forest, or trolls in the swamps (or whatever). Think about your land of mystery and get creative. As the adventure grows you’ll likely want to think about the same challenges repeating. This could get bland so be prepared to allow some hex spaces to be easier to get across.

pine trees by lake in forest against sky

Creating a Map

You’re going to want potentially a large map with plenty of areas and space to explore. Sometime over the next week I’ll write small tutorial on how to put in hex grids in programs like Inkarnate (the free version) and the GIMP . In the meantime, you could do some planning of your own and take into consideration some of the important aspects of your map.

Whether you’re creating something entirely home-brew or using a pre-written adventure or setting, you need to consider the ecology of your map. Just like anything in the real world, things in a region or area run alongside each other and effect each other like an ecology. This won’t apply so much in a fantasy setting, but your map should reflect a realistic expectation so that your players can make logical choices in how they travel and where.

Consider some of the following suggestions and ideas…

Travelling Speed

As a guide, you can break each day down into 4 hour slots, of which most characters will require sleep and rest for 8 hours. How far they can travel will depend on what they wish to do, and how fast they travel, such as by foot or on a horse. As the GM, you will know how far each hex is in miles or kilometers and can set the pace of travel accordingly.

Landmarks

Landmarks are vital to the exploration and travelling game. Without landmarks your players are simply making arbitrary choices based on cardinal directions on a compass. This is incredibly dull and likely to put your players off right away. Landmarks give the players a real choice, offering tantalizing bits of mystery and story to get them to move and explore.

But what can they see?

Well it’s fairly simply: when the players arrive at the edge of the map they will want to plan their direction. Did anyone pack a spyglass? Good – then they can start scanning the horizon. Are they in a forest, is there anything obstructing them from scanning the distant horizon? If so, they’ll need to get to higher ground… and already they’ve determined their first objective – find higher ground.

As a general rule, player characters can probably see about 3 miles over flat ground, far less in forests or hilly terrain unless they’re at a peak in the region.

The player characters should be encouraged to scan the horizon each time they stop to rest. As the GM you can now give them tidbits of information about the surrounding area (hex tiles) allowing them to assume control of their own destiny.

Landmarks also give the players something to talk about, mark on their own maps or confirm their location if they get lost – everyone gets to use the role they have been assigned or chosen when they planned the expedition. Let’s hope they packed some sort of compass…

Landmarks can be constructed buildings such as towers, or natural phenomenon such as giant waterfalls, unusual rock formations or the sun bleached bones of titanic creatures!

white and black abstract painting

Locations

Locations  can be considered like any other encounter in RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons. They will be the meat of your adventurer meal. Don’t overlook the dangers of exploring. Exploration is dangerous in real life, and so it should be more so in a fantasy RPG! Stay your hand though, exploring locations should be about the story and not everything should be dealing damage or killing off players! Instead, capitalise on the mystery and narrative of discovering a new land – temples, hallow cities, strange structures and signs of ancient battles – not everything will be covered in traps or occupied by hobgoblins.

This is the hardest part for the GM, but should also be the portion of planning that takes up the most time. Once your map has been created, you should start to focus on the set pieces of your adventure (because it is still your adventure). A location, like any good dungeon should offer potential challenges to each character type in your player party, whether that’s physical obstructions, strange traps, ancient lore, riddles, clues or puzzles which help unlock or reveal something about the area. This shouldn’t always be the case though – otherwise it may become a formulation of ‘we need to use the rogue, and now the fighter and now the mage,’ which takes the narrative aspect of the game away.

If you can tie the revelation of this location into other locations, you begin to knit your world together. For example, let’s say the player party successfully breaks into an ancient temple and reveal a mysterious artifact, such as a key. What does this key unlock? Does it tie into a different temple or building in the region? What does it unlock, treasure, monsters, a terrible and ancient evil?

By all means include things to fight and slay, but try to ensure that the fight isn’t just a random event. It makes much more sense to disturb a nest or lair, or tackle a timeless guardian creature than hack their way through hordes of pointless minions. Use the monster or creature wisely, build up to its big reveal and make the fight mean something. If they can’t defeat it, they must flee… but where do they flee to? Are they in any fit state to fight, should they fight? These are the tension building moments for your player party in an exploration game.

Throw in monsters and creatures that they clearly cannot defeat to get the player characters to consider their options more deeply, but again, don’t make a habit of putting in impossible odds all the time. That sleeping dragon can be left to sleep if they just tiptoe backwards slowly and come back another time!

beautiful countryside creek environment

So how do they explore a hex tile?

First of all, describe exactly what stands out about a region or hex tile – does that rock formation look like anything? Then, if they decide to stop and explore the area in more detail, you can begin a series of encounters. One very simple suggestion is to draw up a small chart based on how many hours the player party wishes to explore the area. You can begin by asking the players how long they intend to stay and search the area in terms of hours. Then, consulting your small chart you can determine that if the party stops and searches for say 3 hours, they will come across up to 2 encounters for that region. Here’s my example:

  1. Hour 1 – They find nothing, but are slowed by the forest and rough terrain
  2. Hour 2 – As above
  3. Hour 3 – They stumble upon the grotto of a forest troll, roll against the parties passive perception to see if either side is surprised.
  4. Hour 4 – They find a cache of old supplies and a few ripped up skeletons, likely the result of a troll attack.
  5. Hour 5 – A small hatch in the earth that looked like a bolt hole for a temporary encampment ( a micro dungeon).

The party may not stay for too long, or they may wish to camp, in which case the troll may come out at night looking for food (an encounter in itself) which provides something for the watchers and guards in the party to deal with before the attack starts in full.

How fast they move, how much attention they decide to dedicate to the searching and investigating is up to the players. They will soon learn that just stomping over ground in the hopes of bumping into something may prove detrimental!

Getting Lost

Sometimes even the most experienced rangers can get lost, particularly in a new land! Becoming lost should always be an option and you should never allow the players to simply retrace their steps if they’ve surged onward without paying attention or exploring different regions or hex tiles.

Perhaps permit them to roll for skills to see if they can get back on track by setting a high difficulty based on the terrain they are in, and any landmarks they can see from where they are, lowering the difficulty for each point of recognition they can muster. If they fail, they are lost and must spend time (and resources) trying to find their original path!

photography of mountain range during winter

Keeping the Motivation During Play

How do you reward characters in exploration adventures? We want to reward the players for exploring, because we want them to enjoy the exploration aspect of the game alongside all the other aspects of RPGs.

Well, I think it depends on the scope of your adventure and the desire driving the party onward. Beyond gaining experience for slaying monsters and villains, perhaps the player characters also receive experience for discovering new areas, locations and landmarks, BUT they then also get experience for making a region safe (multiple hex tiles in the same region) for anyone following them, such as the baggage train.

If you feel a particularly hard region to explore exists because it contains high powered monsters or traps, you could assign different hex regions a challenge rating to reflect the adversity of making it safe.

Perhaps early locations were inaccessible at the start of their adventure, but now they’ve discovered a key, a token or something which will help them get to the that earlier region. This is a great idea because it means that previously explored hex tiles and areas or regions are not simply redundant after use. It can also lead the player characters to explore for specific things, giving them even more motivation to search and explore areas!

Phew! That is quite a long article, apologies!

If you think you’ve benefited from any of this information, leave a comment below – it really helps us if people think we’re doing good, and gives us direction for future articles!

Further Reading

How to be the Dungeon Master (DM)

How to be the DM (new and old) Part 2: Setting the Atmosphere

D&D and Dice Manipulation – Two opposing styles of Dungeon Masters

The Retired Adventurer

The Angry GM (really angry and potty-mouthed!

Giants in the Playground

WarGroove: The Best Game of 2019 Comes Early.

I know what you are thinking: the title of this article is hyperbole of the most unforgivable kind. Just do me a favour and give me a chance to explain.

Wargroove is the latest game developed and published by Chucklefish: the now legendary publisher of the smash hit farm-em-up Stardew Valley and sci fi side scroller, Starbound. The London based publishing and development house have been consistently chucking out winners since the start of the indie revolution, beginning their meteoric rise with Risk Of Rain: a devilishly difficult roguelike.

wargroove-logo-vector

The things their games seem to have in common are a focus on brilliant, stripped down mechanics and a high quality pixel art style, both of which suit me down to the ground.

I spotted Wargroove on one of my frequent and mindless trawls through the steam store. The art style immediately caught my eye and I felt utter joy in my heart as I saw an armoured dog leading an army into battle on a 2D battlefield. I was hooked even before I bought it. This feeling only intensified as I was greeted by an anime-like intro cutscene which I just sat and watched. In recent years, Blizzard has been lauded for their amazing cutscenes, and rightly so, but it is nice to see a smaller developer going for the same sort of thing.

The game brings many franchises to mind: Advance Wars, Fire Emblem, The Battle For Wesnoth. These three are stalwarts in the turn-based strategy genre and in a sense Wargroove actually is all these amazing titles that reached their zenith years ago. It is a kind of rebirth of turn based tactics games, embodying the things that made them great; like smaller maps, tighter mechanics and the ability for players to make maps and customise everything, then they repackaged it into something fresh and beautiful, clearly created by people who know and love the genre.

The gameplay is simple: you take control of one of 12 heroes, 3 for each of the four distinct factions and vie for control of a tactical map broken up into squares. There are a profusion of unit types; from lowly foot soldiers to trebuchets, ships and dragons, all which add tools to your toolbox when trying to outfox your enemy. The interesting thing to note is that each faction, while aesthetically unique, can only produce the same units.

This means that the game is easier to balance, with the only asymmetry being with the leader you choose, which puts it in good stead for the Esports scene which has energetically sprung up around the game. From what I have played, the “quick play” option in online multiplayer indeed returns a game quickly, which is fantastic. You can also set up your own game with a whole host of different options to face off against your opponent. I can only hope the devs follow this ease of use up with more features to support competitive play.

Fog-of-War.jpg

The campaign is fully formed and engaging: you follow Mercia, queen of Cherrystone, who is thrust into the driving seat after her father is assassinated by the undead Felheim faction. It plays much like the older games mentioned above: sections of dialogue interspersed with thematic battles which introduce weird and wonderful mechanics to keep you on your toes. The game also provides “puzzle” and “arcade” modes that will significantly aid replayability. There is plenty of humour in the campaign, alongside the broader themes of adventure and war. It’s safe to say Wargroove doesn’t take itself too seriously.

To me, this game is like chess but better. You take your playing pieces and are able to dynamically fight and counter your opponents strategies as you build units and try to out compete the opponent financially by capturing towns. The amazing “crit” system ensures the need for deep thought when positioning your troops, as they only reach their full potential when meeting criteria specific to each unit. I have found myself staring over a defensive line at my opponent, waiting for one of us to blink, only to find myself outmaneuvered somewhere else and forced to flee. You feel the tactics and back and forth of a good wargame just oozing out of this title.

Overworld-Map

This game makes me feel like I am at the start of something new and interesting. This is a feeling we gamers crave; back in 2015, Rocket League hit the market and started a sports-game revolution all of its own. The reason it was able to do this is because it firmly placed itself into that genre, but did the same things as other sports games (use of physics, a ball with goals and a global game timer) repackaged into something new and fresh, the process by which those older, tried and tested elements, could create something satisfying and new. As of the writing of this article, the highest prize pool for a Rocket League tournament was over 1 million dollars.

Wargroove, I feel, is doing the same thing to turn based strategy games. There is a huge demographic of gamers who are starved for this type of game and feel the urge to watch talented people play it against each other; to follow their favourite player and hopefully start that journey themselves. The strategy gamer in on the comeback.

This game delivers on so many levels but it is important to discuss its drawbacks. Chiefly that most people will really be put off by how slow the game can feel when you are in the thick of the action. Every game requires you to really think about how you set up your forces and is almost a cold war where each person is trying to push and maneuver to find an edge. In fact, once the fighting begins, you often know what the result is going to be only a few turns afterwards. To me, this is ideal, and speaks to a wargame that works, but for others it might ring dull.

Winter-Map

In conclusion, I do not think it is too soon to tell that this beautiful little game is going to make waves in the realm of strategy well into 2019 and I cannot wait to play in my first tournament.

Wargroove is out now on Windows, PS4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch. It is priced at around 15-20 dollars.

P.S. Wagons Are Bad – Brought to you by the Anti Wagon League.

Killing in the Name of: Dungeons & Dragons and the unbridled passion of slaying the adventuring party – A few lessons learned

For the last three gaming sessions, I’ve been guiding my players as they attempt to uncover and solve the mystery surrounding the small fishing town of Sharholme. People have gone missing. There’s a taciturn lighthouse keeper who no one likes. Weird and exotic fish are turning up in the nets of the fishermen. What did it all mean?

Well I’m not going to give you all the details, where’s the fun in that? No, I’m going to give you an insight into when the adventuring party were fooled and the Dungeon Master commits to running the adventure to its inevitable end, whether that’s the final encounter or much sooner!

‘Some of your characters may die towards the end of this adventure – I’m testing the adventure on you guys.’

These were my first words when describing the adventure idea I had to my players, a week before they started. Perhaps subconsciously I was giving them a clue to play tougher or optimised characters, or perhaps I was trying to defend myself from any fallout that may occur if it all went wrong. Whatever the reason, the very next gaming session we started the adventure.

The beginning was cryptic – they were called north, along  the Sword Coast by a voiceless whisperer who would not allow them to rest unless they were moving. A brief stop at Candlekeep is all they needed. Get there, and perhaps some clues could give them answers.

But they will never know.

Dungeons and Dragons D&D D&D logo Wizards of the Coast WotC RPG Gaming Tabletop gaming
Photo by ahmed adly on Pexels.com

The first adventure was to warm them up. I was going to let them be goddam heroes and throw small hordes of easily defeated monsters at them. I was going to give them hostages to break out in a daring escape, maybe face off with the enemy leader and thwart the even stranger, deadlier nemesis who defines the backdrop of the narrative.

Alas, it was not to be. They believed they had reached the final encounter. They had not. The Prince Under the Reef was not the monster’s commander as they thought. I’m chuckling as I write this because some of them will only realise as they read this… yeah, it gives me an amusing tingle.

The adventuring party had, in fact, only reached the third to last encounter in the natural dungeon setting. They had suffered some terrible wounds and faced some unsightly horrors, many of them surprises. Up to this point they had advanced in a somnambulistic way perhaps thinking that, being the first part of a what was promised to be a long running campaign, they would have it easy. To some degree this was right.

grey skulls piled on ground
Photo by Renato Danyi on Pexels.com

Allow me to explain:

As a DM I had done my research, read endless articles by other DMs & GMs, consulted the oracle that is Reddit and gone back to basics. I even wrote this article, which, if any of them had read it, may have given them a clue into what to expect. I threw low-challenge creatures at them, made the monsters act in a fantastically pulp manner, unthinking but not to be mocked.

Then I hit them with a monster whose challenge rating was a single point higher than their party level. He was a large humanoid, fighting on even terms. He didn’t even rush them, instead he paused and waited to see if they would parley, to see if they could talk to him and see if they could find peace. They outnumbered him but they seemed tired – his minions had carried out their task of killing the adventuring party with a thousand paper cuts. All he had to do now was thrust his trident into the open wounds and finish them off.

What followed was five rounds of bloody mayhem.

The bird-man monk fell first, the priest next, followed by the halfling rogue who couldn’t quite dash into cover, leaving the archer as last-elf-standing. It was a bold gesture to cast away that bow and draw a long sword, after-all, the enemy had thrown his trident at them previously, disarming himself in the process. Both combatants were heavily wounded.

Dungeons and Dragons D&D D&D logo Wizards of the Coast WotC RPG Gaming Tabletop gaming
Taken from media-waterdeep.cursecdn.com 6/2/19

The elf stood little chance.

While the fight continued, his comrades bled to death on the wet subterranean sands of the oceanic grotto. Some would stabilize but be useless to sway the flow of battle. As the sun’s final rays set against the turbulent waves above, my heroic adventuring party slumped to the ground in a final gasp below the waves.

As the DM, I had defined my dungeoneering destiny and finalised the characters fates by not holding back. I had lulled them into a false sense of security and then pounced upon them with a well calculated challenge. Or so I thought.

The daft thing is: I expected them to get to the final encounter and then suffer tremendously through a terrifying race across an underground, underwater grotto ala Indiana Jones’ cinematic dash, avoiding natural traps and pitfalls as they barrelled along heroically.

In a nutshell, the DM did not hold the player’s hands and guide them through. I realised that if there is to be any fun in the game, it has to be risky. I knew this already, but the temptation to guide the players through the story had flattened the experience for me… it had simply lost some of its fun.

As for the players, well the fun reached a happy height above our gaming table. Although they were getting ripped to pieces, bleeding all over the place and possibly facing death (well, actually they did) they all seemed happy to go along with it.

Here’s the kicker for the players though – that challenging encounter left the monster with just twelve hit points. TWELVE! That’s one good or two average hits with a long sword… but the dice rolling was poor, and I was using my specially reserved Dungeon Master Dice. They never let me down.

So there you have it:

Dungeon and Games Masters, don’t be afraid to roll up your sleeves and kick their arses if it’s all going wrong, you’ll all enjoy it!

And Players; never trust the DM. Ever.

We’re sly a bunch.

J.D. Ferris