Dusting off the dice

Looking back at the last couple of years of my blog, I’m slightly surprised that I haven’t posted anything about my return to playing D&D, which has been one of my major recreational activities since the summer before last. Mind you, I didn’t blog at all for much of that time, so maybe it’s not so surprising.

As I mentioned in a previous post (several years ago), I grew up playing roleplaying games (RPGs). I didn’t actually list D&D (that’s Dungeons & Dragons, arguably the classic fantasy RPG, in case you were wondering) in that post, but it was probably the first such game I played (back in the days of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, before even 2nd edition D&D existed). Fairly soon, we moved onto other games and eventually I stopped playing RPGs altogether for quite a few years, though not without occasionally thinking that it would be nice to play again. (I did continue to play computer RPGs from time to time, but it’s really not the same thing.)

About 18 months ago, several friends and I got together to start a D&D campaign, led by one who had actually played fairly recently, though I think this was his first go as dungeon master. By this point, D&D had reached its 5th Edition and this was the one we were, and are, using. We got stuck into the officially published Horde of the Dragon Queen campaign, albeit with quite a lot of additional homebrew material from Rob, the DM. My character was a bard called Vrach Kto (a far too literal Russian translation of “Doctor Who”) and he was quite instrumental in keeping the party together in the early sessions when I was the only one other than Rob with any experience of how RPGs work. Unlike previous editions of D&D, in which bards were seriously gimped, they are actually a pretty useful class in 5e, and probably one of my favourites (though I also have a soft spot for druids and, as in most other things, I tend to the view that variety is the spice of life).

Several months later, Vrach met an unfortunate end when one of his companions rashly set off a gas trap which forced us to flee unprepared into a room full of bad guys. Unperturbed, I created a new character, a dragonborn paladin called Claudius Occulus, and the campaign continued. But not for very long, as we soon took an extended break to allow Rob more time to write his homebrew content for the adventure.

Rather than putting our D&D on hold indefinitely, we launched into a series of one-shot adventures with different members of the group taking turns as DM, and then started on another campaign (The Lost Mines of Phandelver, from the 5e Starter Set), with me at the helm. That’s a much shorter campaign and we are about half-way through by now, but it is proving difficult to get all the players together at the same time so we are still throwing in quite a few one-shots, which is a great opportunity to play a variety of characters at different levels, and doesn’t need the same players (or DM) every time.

This Saturday we’re due to be playing a one-shot with a party of 9th level characters, which should be fun as the highest I’ve ever played under 5e rules (which allow for characters up to level 20) is level 5. I’m in the process of creating a new character for this game, using a more or less random character generation scheme I came up with – so far she’s shaping up to be a female human bard who will probably resemble Vrach Kto to a certain extent, though less inclined to wade into the middle of combat.

Hopefully it won’t be too long before we get back to Rob’s campaign too. As I recall, we finished our last session of that one half way up a tower full of fiendish puzzles on our way to hoist a pair of bloomers we’d just stolen from the local nobility on a flagpole as part of a challenge that Claudius, aided by his companions, had taken on in order to impress a guard captain we were trying to persuade to cooperate in our attempt to stop a crazy dragon cult from taking over the known world. Or something like that (it’s been a while!).


Old Soldiers

I had a bit of a rude awakening today, when I came across an article on the Guardian news blog about the Warhammer battle game.

This was a game that I used to rather enjoy playing in my youth and it was a bit of a shock when the article pointed out that the game is now 32 years old.  Admittedly it shouldn’t have been too much a shock since I’m well aware that I’m several years older than that and I am mathematically literate.  Somehow, though, the realisation of how long it is since Warhammer came out made me feel somewhat older than reminiscing to the (younger) friends with whom I was watchingsome of the Star Wars movies last weekend about how I saw The Empire Strikes Back when it was first out in the cinema, even though that was several years earlier.

As I recall, my brother got a copy of the first edition Warhammer rules fairly shortly after they first came out (and when, of course, they were not “first edition” but just “Warhammer”) and it wasn’t too long before we had our first battles.  We later got a copy of the 2nd edition, as well as Warhammer 40,000 (the futuristic, sci-fi version, which was my fairly firm favourite), and played these from time to time over the next decade or so.

In fact, we were generally more into roleplaying games (including the Warhammer spin-off, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, which was our main RPG for a while before being supplanted in our affections by Shadowrun and various other games) but it was always nice to be able to have a bit of a tabletop battle for a change, even if we were limited to fairly small armies.  That limitation, incidentally, was more due to our available playing space (growing up in a fairly small terraced house) than the size of our miniature figure collection, which was fairly extensive (and provided an early boost to my interest in painting – though in later years I’ve tended to paint pictures, when I get round to painting at all, rather than figures).

It’s been quite a few years since I’ve played Warhammer, or indeed any other tabletop battle game (I did have a few games of a Napoleonic battle game called Shako with a friend about 10 years ago, and I’ve a vague feeling we may have played a little bit of Warhammer then too) and I don’t particularly have any great desire to go back to it.  I’d be much more interested in getting back into playing real RPGs – I still play occasional CRPGs (i.e. Computer RolePlaying Games) but it’s really not the same.

Nevertheless, Warhammer and other wargames did definitely have an important if not particularly large role in my early life and are a part of that rich tapestry of experiences that make me who I am.

And I’m probably not the only one to ever consider how the real world might be a much nicer place if, when opposing groups had a territorial dispute or some other such cause for conflict, they got together round a large table with a bunch of miniature figures, a bag of dice and a tape measure and settled their differences that way without having to tear up the lives of thousands or millions of real people.

Byd Bach

I have recently been enjoying the opportunity afforded by modern technology to play board games at a distance, in two ways.

The first, which I might write about sometime soon, is using a gaming website called yourturnmyturn.com to play a variety of games mostly against random people I don’t know (although one of the random people I play against is my friend Andy, who introduced me to the site).

The other, which I’m concentrating on in this post, is using a Java-based gaming engine called Vassal, which provides a virtual gameboard for a number of games (loaded as modules)  and supports realtime play via a server or P2P network or play by email.

So far I’ve been using Vassal exclusively to play one game – Small World (I won’t go into the details of the game, as you can read all about it on Wikipedia).  This is a game that my brother, Wulf, recently discovered IRL and thought would work for online play.  While he was investigating how to make that happen, he came across Vassal and so invited me to join him in a game.

After our first 2-player game we recruited our friend Phil to join us for a 3-player game, as it seems to work better with at least 3 players (although the 2-player version is still quite enjoyable).  We have now just completed our second game and are about to start on a third, as well as inviting a couple of other players (including the aforementioned Andy, who is Phil’s brother) to join us for another (as far as I can remember, 5 players is the maximum).

One of the things that makes the game enjoyable, and highly replayable, is the way that the different race/power combinations (which are selected randomly as the game progresses, although you do have the choice to skip over races in the queue (at a cost of some victory points) in order to get preferable combinations) have quite different strengths and weaknesses and invite quite different tactics to make them work at their best.  The fact that the game is time limited (10 turns, at least in the 2 & 3 player versions) is also good, as it prevents individual games from dragging on for too long.

I anticipate many more good games of Small World, both using Vassal and (hopefully, one day) IRL.

PS in case you were wondering, Byd Bach is Welsh for Small World.