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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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)

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?)

sci-fi science fiction sciencefiction themeborne escape alien starwars startrek star wars gothic punk dark tabletop game

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.

mountain surrounded with trees

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

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

Water Colour Brushes in GIMP – 10 Quick & Easy steps to make your photo images look amazing!

So we’ve had a little trouble lately with getting images for our first complete incarnation of Pulp Fantasy. It’s never easy doing something on a budget and entirely your own time. Our searches for willing artists have been hard, and for good reason – few people want to work and create something for free, credits or no credits. We understand that feeling precisely!

We stepped back and looked at what free resources we could muster to helps us create some images we could call our own (in part). This what we came up with…

GIMP

GIMP or the GNU Image Manipulation Program is a free image editor for just about every digital platform. Its so free in fact, you can edit its source code and distribute that new scripting for yourself if you were so inclined. You can download it from here, its a really cool tool. Yes, it may not have everything Photoshop does, but err, Photoshop is not free!

Pixabay

This cool site is used for media all over the internet. It is chock full of drawings, photographs and vector art. Admittedly, some of it is not up to an amazing standard, but then it’s also free. The vast majority of the images found on Pixabay are both free to use commercially and do not require attribution to the author / creator, meaning you can use it freely for personal or enterprise use. You can find Pixabay here, but make sure you check what the terms of use are, just in case!

Brush Sets

In GIMP and similar programs, you can find and download different tool effects. I’m going to focus on the brush tools, which, rather than just drawing one tiny pixel at a time, allow you to create varied shapes and effects with the click of your mouse button. The are thousands of brushes and special effects out there to use, but here’s a link to a few helpful brushes!

You’ll need to download these and save them in the right folder. To save us all time, there’s a handy little walk through here

Once you’re setup, we’re good to go!

This isn’t a complicated process but it’s worth getting it right. There’s room to play with various levels and tones, so take your time to play and learn what works best for you.

Step Zero

Search to find an image from Pixabay or one of your own and save it in a handy space. I tend to save images to my desktop for ease, I guess this is what its for? Later I’ll save it to a proper directory. Later, sure…

Step One

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Start by opening your image in GIMP using the File > Open options. It should appear just like the image above.

Step Two

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I’m going to work on black and white images, since my final document I want to have a brooding and dark feeling to it, not much room for colour. Artistic choices, eh? You can desaturate the image using Colour > Desaturate. There’s a choice of 3 levels, so play about and see which works best for you. It’s just a choice, and there’s not a huge amount of variety in it.

Step Three

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I don’t want all of the detail to show in the images, as I like a slight abstract feel. So I use the Posterize option found using the Colours > Posterize. Again, you can fiddle for different effects.

You can also use the Threshold tool, following Colours > Threshold for more control. Posterize is quicker, but with Threshold you get more choice with the handy slider bar. Play around, see what you like!

Step Four

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So, now we’re going to work with some Layers. Layers are literally just that, extra layers over or under your image which we use to create effects. Some of them can be invisible, others can be bold. Any image manipulation will involve layers, they’re essential parts to the GIMP and Photoshop process.

You can access a new layer following Layers > New Layer, or there’s a handy little button on the bottom left of the Layer Window.

You want to create a new layer that is Transparent. Then click on the paint pot symbol, which is the Filler tool. You can find it by following Tools > Paint Tools > Bucket Fill.

With the new layer highlighted, fill it with white (you can choose any colour but white works best here).

Now make sure that this new layer is below your original image. You can click and drag it down. If you’ve done this right, you can’t see the new layer, as your original image is now ‘over the top’ of the new layer.

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Step Five

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So click on your original layer image and then right click on it. This will bring up a new menu. We’re going to add a mask layer to the image. Select ‘Add Layer Mask…’ and choose ‘Black (Full Transparency)’ like the image below.

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Your image should now vanish behind a white layer. Fear not, this is meant to happen! Now the fun bit begins!

Step Eight

Select the paint brush tool from the quick menu on the right or by following Tools > Paint Tools > Paintbrush. Increase the size of the brush to something that matches your image size, for me that was a size of over 600.

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Now select the type of brush you want to use from the Brushes window (bottom left of the image above). If you’ve installed your brushes properly they should appear here. If they don’t, hit the refresh button or go over the tutorial earlier to check for errors.

When you’ve selected your brush size and shape, go ahead and click some brush marks on the blank screen. You should see the image start to appear underneath the mask.

The more times you click on the same portion of the image, the darker and more apparent it will appear.

The key to this part is really just seeing what works for you. Mix and match the different brush shapes. If you mess up, you can use the Undo shortcut Ctrl + Z which will take you back one step at a time.

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Step Nine

Keep going until you’re happy with the result. Play around with the image and don’t rush the process. If you’re really not happy, just open the image again and start from fresh.

Finishing Up

Some images work better than others, it really depends on what effect you’re after. Once you’re happy with the final image, you should probably save it as a new file under the File > Save As, options.

Then you just need to Export the new image using File > Export. Give it a new flashy name and select the extension type. Ideally you’re after .jpeg or .png if you’re using the file in word documents or for websites (the files are pretty small but keep a good level of detail).

armour gear

We’ve used this process to create some images for our Fantasy Pulp tabletop RPG and the fantasy setting ‘The Godless Realm’ which you can learn about here:

The Godless Realm – Update and Changes Made

We’re also on Discord, and here’s the link to join us there!

That’s it for now!

J.D. Ferris

Warhammer Quest Blackstone Fortress: One Stronghold Down & Still Learning

Prior to the Festive period we got our hands on a box of Games Workshop’s Warhammer Quest: Blackstone Fortress. So far we’ve been loving the game. Some of us have had reservations about Games Workshop in the past, their ability to piss their hardcore fans off – which seems to be normal for any company in the 21st Century, but more so because of the blatant greed. I digress, I actually enjoy the Warhammer and Warhammer 40K universe.

Over the festive period we’ve managed to get in three solid gaming sessions; the first to get to know the game and try to figure out the rules; another to start a proper campaign and see how far we could get; and the most recent session to take on the first of several strongholds in the game. Allow me to explain…

In Warhammer Quest: Blackstone Fortress you play characters from a band of adventurers in the 41st Millenium, investigating an ancient and monolithic structure drifting in space. Access points to this fortress allow you to gain entry into different parts of the fortress, where you seek clues to find the much sought after Hidden Vault.

warhammer quest blackstone fortress games workshop

In game terms you need to find clue cards from your expeditions into the Blackstone Fortress. At first glance we thought this could take a good number of games, and now after a few more sessions we have a better understanding…

In session 2 we ploughed our way through a regular expedition, taking some heavy fire but actually finding a total of 5 clues, 1 more than we actually needed. This allowed us to gather the information and put it together into locating one of several strongholds which held a higher echelon of clues, to eventually permit us deeper into the fortress (we guess). So in actual fact, we don’t need to play hundreds of games as we at first thought. No, you can get all the clues you need in a single nights session of gaming.

So in session 3 we blitzed the run-up to this stronghold, the Descent, where the players must traverse a two layered dungeon map (sorry, Combat map) and then get to a focus point and access it several times to end the game. Whilst this was happening, the monsters and bad guys were spawning 50% of the time, because reinforcements in Strongholds happens on a 1-10 of a 20 sided dice.

But we cheated..!

Ok, so we had 6 players this time round (usually its 4 characters tops), so it was much easier. But in our defence, we still nearly lost several characters in the process which would have crippled our chances of completing the game as a whole and never opening that secret envelope for the Hidden Vault.

warhammer quest blackstone fortress games workshop
Mmm, secrets…

So, to the naysayers on reddit who told me that the price of the game (even discounted to ~£70) was not worth it because, on average, people would maybe play the game 4-5 times a year: your loss. Even if you hate Games Workshop for being the money making powerhouse that it is, they’ve actually hit upon a good game, that has more depth and story than any of the current or previous games they’ve made.

You see, the game relies on players not always being present every gaming session, so that the characters they play, which are persistent throughout the gaming sessions, get played by other members of your gaming group. If that character dies, there’s no chance of them coming back, they lose all of their equipment, focus and abilities not only of themselves, but of the adventuring group. That adds up to quite a loss.

Why is this a good thing?

Because it adds a sense of realism and makes the game harder challenging.

We’ve felt challenged by this game each session, more so because there is no genius mastermind controlling the bad guys. Cooperatively, we were still getting our buns handed to us by an insubstantial  entity that is the games master.

A bit like a omnipresent  entity in the form of a floating space fortress…

Our advice for the average gamers with families (thus limiting your game time) – play Warhammer Quest: Blackstone Fortress with less  Exploration Cards. Normally you create the deck of Exploration cards by taking 4 from the challenges and 4 from the Combat decks. This, in our opinion, can take more hours than are fair in an evening.

Three cards from each can take you 3 hours, you just get less chance of finding clue cards, but then you just play an extra session later. It’s pretty straight forward!

Let’s see if we can get that envelope opened!

Warhammer Quest, Blackstone Fortress – Hero Quest in Space or More?

Blackstone Fortress is the latest adventure board game to come from Games Workshop set in the grim darkness of the 41st millennium, Warhammer 40K to most nerds. It is labelled as Warhammer Quest. For those you in your thirties this will take you back to the glory days of heroic ineptitude – the golden age of adventure. For everyone else, it’s the latest in the Warhammer Quest Series. Alongside Blackstone Fortress in the Warhammer Quest series are Silver Tower (currently discontinued) and Shadows of Hammerhal both of which are set in GW’s fantasy setting, Age of Sigmar. All of these games follow similar game styles and mechanics, so if you’ve played one you should be able to pick up the others with relative ease.

Blackstone Fortress promises exploration and adventure in the grim darkness of the 41st Millenium, a vast void of horror and terror.

It delivers.

With character choices ranging from outlawed Artificial Intelligence robot, rogue trader and Imperial Navigator to fanatic, Ratling snipers (who are twins) and alien hunters, there should be something for anyone who has an interest in grim and gritty science fiction.

A few of you older players out there who have not ventured in table top adventure games in some time may be thinking ‘is this just Hero Quest in the modern era of gaming?’ I think it’s a fair and realistic question. So is it just Hero Quest in space? Well yes, at least in concept.

The Goal

The whole point of Blackstone Fortress is to find your way into the Hidden Vault, deep inside the drifting hulk of the mysterious Blackstone Fortress. To do this, players need to discover clues during their expeditions. These clues will lead to special scenarios called Strongholds, which will eventually lead to the hidden vault. Even when a stronghold attack can be mounted, the players still need to get to them, with a 4 card expedition, purely of combat – more of this later. Getting to the hidden vault will take a lot of gaming hours, but I am certain that it will be a challenge and a worthy one at that!

In the game fluff, the Blackstone Fortress learns and adapts after each incursion of adventurers. Legacy cards add to the danger in this aspect, increasing the threat level for some monsters, such as the Spindle Drone. They up the ante during the expeditions. Once in play they stay and generally add flair and layers of danger to the expeditions. Once there are no more legacy cards in left in play, you’ve run out of time, and lose the game, no matter where you’re up to!

warhammer blackstone fortress sci-fi horror gamesworkshop
The Precipice section of the board game, from Games Workshop’s Blackstone Fortress, with the character ships, two varieties of the Grav-lifts and the Leader token.

Let’s take a look at the goods first though…

Manufacturing Quality

The important bit to most gamers and war-gamers: are the miniatures any good? Yes. The miniatures are amazing and better still, they clip together – no glue required. You just need something to cut them from the plastic sprue. This took me a couple of hours whilst watching a series on Netflix so anyone with more experience may get it done in half that time.

The miniatures are constructed in such a way that they appear seamless, which took a bit of jigsaw magic to see how they fitted together – but as previously mentioned, no glue is required, so you can take your time. The same great GW quality of miniature manufacture is found throughout. I think my Kill Team just got bigger too – the models are in hot demand, check out ebay if you don’t believe me.

The game tiles are a really thick and good quality card. They pop out easily, which reduces tearing of the precious printed sides. They’re double sided but unlike Imperial Assault by Fantasy Flight, there’s not a million small pieces to get lost or confused with. The game counters are all pretty unique, with the majority of them being wound tokens (which are double sided for critical wounds). The rest are for game effects and inspiration points, which I’ll mention later on.

There are three rule-books.

Don’t despair.

warhammer blackstone fortress sci-fi horror gamesworkshop Games Workshop
Five books from Games Workshop’s Blackstone Fortress. One is fluff, one of rules for Warhammer 40K and the other three are for game play.

Each one is written chronologically for each section of the game as you progress. They are written to the usual standard for GW, guiding you through in simple steps. The terminology may be a little different if you haven’t tried GW games before, so take your time. If you are familiar with any of the GW games, such as Warhammer 40K or Age of Sigmar, you’ll find the turn sequence and rounds familiar.

Once you have the turn sequence in your mind, it’s pretty straight forward from there. There is a bit of juggling with the game on the first play through, as you consult different books to figure out when you can heal or how to carry out certain actions. This is a minor point, however it does highlight the importance of reading through the rules before the gaming session!

Blackstone Fortress is split into two game sections by exploration cards; challenges and combats, which are drawn randomly from the Exploration card deck. The exploration deck is large, 36 cards, so it should always be a different combination. You randomly pick 4 challenge cards and 4 combat cards which make up the Exploration deck for the Expedition. When combined, these are like a campaign story arc. These are shuffled and placed on the Precipice board, which is like the character staging area.

There are 18 cards each for both challenges and combats (36 cards in total). By drawing 4 of each randomly, you’re looking at 1 in 18 chance of drawing the same cards each time you create the exploration deck. The chances of drawing the same 8 cards are something like a 1 in 105,000 chance, by my shoddy calculations. That’s a lot of gaming before statistically you get the same play-through.

Challenges

The challenges are narrative encounters which do not make use of models and board pieces. They are usually a way of grabbing gear and tech (treasure, clues to future explorations), usually by causing damage to assailants. They include short narrative pieces such as ‘Get them all!’ where the players are required to inflict as much damage as they can to a fleeing group of hostiles – anyone who can deal 4 or more wound gets to draw a card from the discovery deck. Simples.

On a balancing note, these may be to help characters build up with less risk than combats or offer special cards for future explorations.

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The Precipice section of the board game, from Games Workshop’s Blackstone Fortress, with two of the character ships, the Destiny dice, Exploration cards and Discovery cards.

Combat Setup

Combats involve board pieces and miniatures and are the biggest portion of the game. Each combat exploration card shows how the map tiles are set up so anyone can setup the board while others are chasing through the rules books or determine where the bad guys and monsters are placed. They also mark where certain mission specific specials may be placed.

Keeping track of the game during combat is achieved with the Initiative tracker. The players get the option to attempt to help each other by swapping places with allies or attempting to swap their place with the enemy to get the drop on them. This all happens in the Initiative phase, followed by the Gambit phase. The Gambit phase can be costly as an action dice has to be spent, followed by an ability roll to determine success. These mechanics help to really bring the tension to the game, forcing the players to plan ahead. The players feel the pressure when the cards are redrawn each round, as their plans will likely need to change.

Hostiles and bad guys are drawn from the Encounter cards deck and placed in the starting positions according to the combat exploration card, which are given a specific place on the board and the tracker. The number of hostiles on a card are determined by where on the tracker they are, for example, you may get 2 drones on position 1, or 4 on position 2. Hostiles gain reinforcements each turn and are spawned on their turn in the Initiative track with a roll of a 20 sided dice, called the Blackstone Dice (which is black and looks like a stone if you’re not familiar with 20 sided dice). This adds threat, because even if all the bad guys are dead, they can keep re-spawning as happened with our test games!

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The Traitor Guardsmen for Warhammer Quest: Blackstone Fortress by Games Workshop

Hostiles in the game are given over to an AI system, where they react depending on a dice roll. It is not completely random, as each action they are given depends on a set few variables which allows them to act organically. Each set of rules for the monsters appears on very handy cards, giving you everything you need to know in a single place. So much easier than consulting multiple books!

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The Traitor Guardsmen for Warhammer Quest: Blackstone Fortress by Games Workshop. The reverse side shows how the AI results on a dice roll.

Hostiles are terrifying in their own specific ways; if they’re not ripping you to ribbons with frenzied claw attacks they’re punching through your armour and ignoring your save rolls with shocking power! Case in point, UR-025 (or Mr Robot man to you and I) is a heavy duty fighter, with a better chance of rolling saves against wounds, with an added re-roll too – then he gets hit by a Negavolt Cultist and suddenly he has no armour saves. Surprises await those unprepared!

warhammer blackstone fortress sci-fi horror gamesworkshop
Game tiles for Games Workshops Blackstone Fortress. Double sided and durable for all your grim and gritty science fiction adventures in the hopeless voids of Warhammer 40K!

Characters in the Game

At the start of each combat round Characters are allocated action dice, regular six sided dice. The dice are stored on their character card with whatever score they rolled. These dice are used / spent on actions which require a set number on one or more of those dice. Moving require a dice with a score of 1 or more, other actions may require 4 or more on a dice etc. There are standard actions and character specific actions, which are found on the character cards, usually weapon actions.

Explore with caution. When you are wounded the dice you roll at the start of each round are blocked, covered by wound markers, meaning the potential number of actions you can make are severely impaired! Fear not however, each round an extra pool of destiny dice are rolled which any one can use – but the power of the warp means that any duplicate scores on these dice are removed, so you better roll fresh to get the most out of destiny! A lot of dice multiples came up during our game, causing tension and nail biting in equal measure.

A second type of dice rolls are attribute dice which are used to evade damage, carry out special tasks and try to recover wounds. There are wounds and then there are critical wounds – wounds can be recovered during the combat part of the game, whereas critical wounds require a trip back to your ship to try and heal. As with Warhammer Quest back in the golden age, however, there’s always a chance something may not heal fully…

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The Kroot Tracker for Warhammer Quest: Blackstone Fortress by Games Workshop

The dice rolls are easy to interpret: you either fail, succeed or critically succeed. Each of the ability dice (6, 8 and 12 sided dice) are colour coded to match the information on the character sheets. These dice rolls are not always friendly, you can feel like the end of times can result from a failed roll. On the plus side, there’s very few calculations as in some GW games – just check to see how many symbols you rolled and away you go. GW have followed Fantasy Flight in this – so don’t lose those dice! Otherwise you could end up paying for more specialist dice in the future…

Toward the end of the combat sections, characters need to escape by summoning the escape lift, usually under duress. There’s no way out otherwise! When the remaining characters get to the escape lift, they have to decide to carry on fighting the growing horde, or to head back to their ships to lick their wounds. Heading back restarts the exploration so if you really need to finish you’re gonna find it hard to do!

When a character kills a number of monsters on their turn, they can roll the Blackstone Dice to see if they gain Inspiration points, where they are required to roll under the wounds they caused on a 20-sided dice. Inspiration points are used to re-roll some dice throughout the game, usually the activation dice at the start of the round, or give flip your character card over to increase their effectiveness. A bit like leveling up!

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The ‘Inspired’ Kroot Tracker for Warhammer Quest: Blackstone Fortress by Games Workshop

At the end of each round of the game, in combat or otherwise, a leadership token passes around the table, allowing each player to call the shots in equal measure (with a discussion, of course).

First Impressions & Thoughts

In a single evening gaming session, including learning how to play the game, we managed to get through 1 challenge and 2 combats. Assuming we don’t have to relearn the game, we could probably manage drawing 4 of the Exploration cards, which equates to half an Expedition. At this rate, in theory, we could spend hundreds of hours playing this game. So unlike Hero Quest, there is a seemingly limitless combination of events from challenges, combats and encounter (monster) cards. There’s probably scope for fan made or self made encounters too, let’s watch the internet pensively for these.

The game has a very nostalgic feel to it, similar to previous board games from GW decades ago. The hostile creatures are just as deadly as you’d expect, in their own ways. Players without prior knowledge will make mistakes which make the game intense and ups the challenge rating greatly. In this way, very much like Hero Quest!

The open form and random generation of each Expedition is a similar mechanic used by other games and it works just as well in Blackstone Fortress. It will take some serious play testing to get through all of the different combinations. In our initial play-through we had four players and one person acting as the games master. We felt this worked best for our first game so we could focus on the different parts of the game – just like in Hero Quest! You can play this game solo or without a games master, as the monsters follow an AI system, meaning all you need to do is move the pieces around and roll the dice.

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Dice, lots of six-sided dice, with the special ability dice, from 6, 8 & 12-sided dice. The 20-sided dice is the Blackstone dice…

What we did wrong…

We went wrong in some parts, missing the exploration round which would have made the combat a little easier if we had rolled on the event table. Although, the table isn’t all good – sometimes it can go horribly wrong… So it’s not all bad!

Why did we miss this section? It’s right at the end of the combat book, and there’s a lot in some sections. As we frenziedly played through the rounds we completely missed it! No one said nerds were thorough. So be sure to have all books to hand and refer to them often.

Value Ratio

It is a thorough and playable game. It has the same high quality of most Games Workshop products, but you will pay through the nose for it if you don’t shop around. I was lucky, I found an ebay seller with about 20% off the RRP, I then applied a free 10% discount from ebay to get it even cheaper.

If bought from a third party retailer the price becomes a little more affordable for a game of this type. The miniatures are worth a heavy bit of gold. The card tiles are sturdy. Even the box is sturdy (I mean, it has to be, it’s a heavy one). You get all the dice you need.

Edit: This may look like a silly thing to say, but £95 is a hefty price tag for any board game. Shop around, GW will get their money, so it helps smaller businesses if you go through them!

Since this is a complete game (£95.00), there’s no expansions as far as we know, and given the replay ability of expeditions is very high, it is feasible to play over a hundred games. Maybe even twice that. So you’re looking at about £0.5 – £1 per game. Let’s be conservative and say each full expedition takes 4 hours. You’re looking at £0.25 to £0.50 per hour of play. That’s really good money for a game that should be different each time. You’re snacks will cost you more to eat!

In Conclusion

The Feels – a dark, desperate setting with mechanics that fit those feelings. Thrilling, because when you do score a critical roll it feels like the cosmos is backing you up – any other time it’s trying to eat you!

No silly measuring distances, just count the hexes. Can you draw a straight line from the centre of a hex to the hex your target is standing in? Then you have line of sight, roll your dice. It’s that easy.

Edit: Downsides include what some players have described as ‘chaff’ play. This means that a few players think the amount of combats that are required to complete the game can get a bit samey. GW, do we need to go through quite so much to complete the game? On a personal level, I think it’s important to understand that the fighting during the combat sections are not about clearing the board – it is about surviving the battle and gathering the clues before time runs out. Perhaps GW could do with giving us more information on the bigger picture of the game earlier on.

So is it like Hero Quest? Yeah I think it is, it certainly has that heroic quality to it, and I’m sure it will one day be one of those nostalgic games we all reminisce about.

If you’ve got any questions or thoughts, we’d love to hear them! you can find us on our discord server.

You can get a few more articles by us on other Games Workshop products here or here.

Enjoy!

 

*Edited 24/12/18 to reflect some feedback from our gaming group and affiliates.