They Did the Mash: Revelry at Pickett Castle

After all these years, I finally ran Revelry at Pickett Castle.  I used a combination of B/X (for stats & bonuses) and Blueholme (OD&D’s spellbook rules) with ascending AC. While I didn’t take the dice out of my players hands, I rolled saves for them so they had one less thing to worry about on their character sheets.

To make the most of our time for the evening, I created a handful of pre-gen characters, each with alliterative names and duplicate DM copies so I could better keep track of everyone.

From our pool of 9 characters, we ended up having a party of Elmuth the Elf, Harry the Halfling, Margot the Mage, Paul the Priest (Cleric), Mack the (Magic User) Knife, and Nicole the Nun (cleric). Unused were Thisban the Thief, Dirk the Dwarf, and Alice the Archer.

I’m glad that someone picked Mack the Knife; in the constraints of the B/X class system, I’d made a mage of mediocre stats an effective bard type character, giving him a bundle of throwing knives and a banjo of magic missiles to compensate for his smaller 13 INT spellbook. More about him later.

Each character had some random junk in addition to basic class equipment: a bag of rice, some fancy cheeses and liquors, cooking oil, a cold potato, etc.. Mostly just weird items to see what players might end up trying to do with stuff. They did not disappoint.

Since Pickett’s Castle is meant to be dropped off in a wilderness while the party is on the way to some place, I needed to come up with a decent excuse for them to have to check it out. So, a local constable of a village in the forest had charged them with investigating the causes of mysterious fogs and sightings of undead in the woods. Naturally, the party wanted to set out in the morning.

Obscuring fog hampered travel a bit, and the party meandered through the woods and stumbled on an old graveyard while following various wolf-trails.  The old graveyard had all sorts of holes in it; some seemingly freshly dug by hand, some where things had seemed to burst forth from the ground, and others where wolves seemed to have dug up shallow graves. Seeing a pack of wolves in one corner of the graveyard, the party skirted around the edge and headed to a small hovel opposite from where the wolves were. Inside, they found a scared-witless grave-keeper who told them that over the past several days, dead had been rising from their graves, and a strange pack of wolves had been keeping him from leaving the graveyard. The bizarre occurrences began happening shortly after he had received a mysterious note, written in what looked like blood—an invitation to a party at Pickett Castle on the night of the full moon.

The party dealt with the wolves and freed the gravekeeper to flee back to the relative safety of the village. They continued in the general direction of the rumored castle, and while the fog still had not lifted by midday, they managed to find the ruins of a road leading northward. As they headed north, the scouting Halfling heard some grumbling voices while others in the rear of the party heard the sound of hooves and wheels upon the ruined road. The party scattered, clearing the road; a carriage pulled by four black stallions raced by at unnatural speed, a strange dog-thing’s head out the window, its tongue hanging out. It appeared to be wearing shades. “Aawoooo!” it shouted as it rode by.

(Since the party had set out for the castle early, they crossed paths with the DJ who was on his way with his gear.)

The zombies were still ahead down the road after the carriage had passed. The party made fairly short work of them, noting that they were nicely dressed, as zombies go. They decided to try to disguise themselves as zombies to sneak into the party; they did, after all, have the zombies’ invitations.

Eventually, everyone reached the castle; some zombies and ghouls were milling about on the far side of the bridge, so the party decided to wait a bit. Some of those milling about went inside, and the party crossed the bridge. One of the zombies at the door counted out on his remaining fingers… “I thought there were supposed to be five of you.” With Mack the Knife in the lead, with his banjo of magic missiles, the party had been mistaken for the band.

Folks looked around and saw that the party was still in the process of being setup, though some refreshments were being served. The first thing the party figured was that there were probably too many undead to take in a straight fight, and the Vampires hadn’t even shown up yet.

Boris waved the party into his laboratory, and explained that he had thought the castle was abandoned and was conducting important experiments, but apparently a powerful vampire lord had a timeshare on the Castle and was planning something big. His experiment required the power of the full moon and the aid of his assistant, who’d been chained up outside. He needed the monsters out before it was too late to use his machine, and he would pay the party handsomely. (The ‘party getting out of hand’ angle wouldn’t work, since the players arrived before the party actually started).

They managed to find Igor chained up outside, and rather than search for the key, they stuck one of the clerics’ mace in between the chain links and cast enlarge on it, snapping the dope free. They got the fool back to Boris without much trouble, but began to worry what would happen if the real band arrived. They left and told the zombie bouncers they were going to get their instruments and would be back to setup soon.

The sun was almost down, and a large bat could be seen flying toward the castle as the party headed south, where they ran into the Crypt Kicker Five. Mack the Knife took initiative and said “We’re the band, now!” The Crypt Kicker Five challenged them to a jam-off, one which they’d surely win, since only the only instruments the party had were Mack’s banjo and harmonica and Nicole’s mouth-harp. Instead, Mack opened with a chord that zapped the Crypt Kicker’s vocalist with a magic missile, downing him from the go. The remaining members of the band, the bassist, drummer, guitarist, and saxophonist, charged the party, instruments swinging. Paul the Priest mangled his leg in the fight, but the gang returned to the party with (some rather banged up) instruments to keep the charade running a bit longer.

They found Drac, who seemed to be in charge and had very big plans for the evening. He was thrilled that band had shown up, but had promised wolfman that he’d be allowed to do his DJ set for a few more hours because he a friend of brother-in-law, Geoffrey.

The magic users in the party made use of the Read Thoughts spell on both Drac and Boris. Boris’s plan involved harnessing the light of the full moon to power a device that let him contact an intelligence beyond the stars. Drac’s plan seemed to involve a cake. This presented a conundrum, as Boris’s plan sounded like a disaster for humanity, but Dracula hadn’t offered them 8000 gold.

Harry the Halfling managed to wheedle out of Drac that he was throwing a birthday party for his son and had a surprise for him. Somehow, the party managed to convince Dracula that it would be great to play their set outside, since they could work pyrotechnics (courtesy of Margot the Mage) into their set and it would be awesome. Plus, it would give Wolfman a bit more time to do his thing while they set up a bon-fire.

They took some time to explore the rest of the tiny castle. Mack the Knife smoked the bad zombie weed, died and came back as a Thriller zombie. They didn’t stick around to piss off the ghoul couple who was making out. In the master bedroom, they found not only the key to Igor’s chains, but a six-foot layered red cake. Mack the Knife tried to take a taste of the icing, rolled a 1, fell into the cake and right into Drac’s surprise for his son – Alucard’s girlfriend Nancy, who was going to burst out of the cake and sing him happy birthday. Nancy ripped off Mack’s arm and was in position to do some serious damage, but Elmuth the elf threw out a handful of rice and Harry the Halfling managed to stake her with his half-spear while she was compelled to count it. With the cake smashed, Drac’s future daughter-in-law dead, and the Crypt-Kicker Five buried out in the woods, the party was pretty ruined, but that didn’t take care of Boris’ need for the monsters to be cleared out before morning.

At this point, panic in set in, and the party floated several really interest and bad ideas for what to do next. Even though they chucked Nancy and the cake out the window, there really wasn’t any way to clean up the huge mess they’d made. So, they went for an all-or-nothing gambit to kill Dracula (which still wouldn’t have ended the party). What they settled on was papering the window with pages from Paul the Priest’s prayer book, holding portal on door and then trying to kill him while he was trapped counting rice.

While this went on, Harry the Halfling tried to assure Drac that everything was still fine, they knew about the surprise cake, and they’d help with moving it to where they were going to put on the show.

Wolfman has switched to playing doo-wop; Dracula goes into the master bedroom, his jaw drops – first thing he sees is the cake is gone, then he notices the bloodbath, then the rice on the floor as the door slams behind him. The party hoped they could take him while he was counting rice, but Drac had made pretty quick work of his counting (“I taught myself to count by tens for just such occasions!”). Still, he was cornered and outnumbered; he threw the bedtable through the window, knocking away the pages from the prayer book and managed to make his escape after suffering a few wounds. He did manage to rip of Mack the Knife’s legs before he misted out the window, though!

The party went back down to Boris’s lab, cast Charm on him and convinced him they needed to move the gold from his vault to a safer location. After the gold was loaded up into a sack which Igor would carry, the party threw Boris down the ravine, thwarting his plans to speak to shadows beyond the stars, and fled the region with the cash, never to return. Dracula, Alucard and Geoff would descend upon the region, seeking vengeance and making the populace suffer for generations for what had been, but the chars escaped with their lives (except Mack who was now a stumpy zombie body with one arm) and a ton of wealth.

 

So, a couple things: a few players weren’t really familiar with the concept of one-offs and it took them a bit of adjusting. One of the cleric players asked what deities there were to choose from in this setting; “God & Jesus” I told them. At least one player had some issues with the consistency of the setting “Why does the Wolfman have Victrolas? I thought this was a medieval setting.” “He also has sunglasses, too,” I reminded her.

Once the players grasped that there was not going to be a ‘next session’, they realized that no ideas were bad ideas, just fun ideas. One of the many plans which was eventually discarded, was that they’d cast Darkness on the Cold Potato and use it… somehow. But a throwable sphere of darkness could’ve been interesting if they’d tossed it onto the dance floor. Another idea, which would’ve actually worked really well, was to spike one of the drinks with wolfsbane and give it to Wolfman; he’d’ve died, music would’ve stopped, Frankenstein’s monster would’ve run amuck, and they could’ve cleared out the place. Some folks asked me if any of the items I’d given them were for specific things or ways to finish the module; nope, I just gave them weird stuff and wanted to see what they’d do with them. I’d almost forgotten the part about how vampires are OCD and compelled to count things when the player used the bag of rice I’d given him to distract the vamps.

The one older guy in our group was the only one who really “got” a lot of the references and understood the gag of the module, while another seemed under the mistaken impression at first that this was going to be a serious affair. Once it actually clicked with one player that the module was based on a song, he started looking up the lyrics in hopes that it would give them ideas for how to complete it. Normally, I’d frown on that sort of thing, but it wasn’t going to help him that much, and hey, a kid who’d never heard the Monster Mash was looking it up, so that’s cool.

Everybody had a good time, and I had a lot of fun, because it let me do a lot of weird character interaction improv that I just wasn’t able to do with Lost City. Yeah, I didn’t run my own module as written, but it worked well as a flexible template to do a lot of weird, fun things with.

Power Dolls

I think the wargamer in me has been subconsciously prepping for WWIII for the last couple of months. Not only did I start playing Fallout 3, I was, until last week, embroiled with a double header of NATO: the Next War in Europe, and over the weekend, I devoted several hours to one of my favorite childhood video games, Red Storm Rising. I’ll tell you what: RSR is the best Tom Clancy based game there is, was or ever will be.

But today, I want to spotlight Power Dolls, a game that I’ve been playing the past couple days and did some live tweeting of last night.

There are two things I love that I am always in the look-out for in combination – hexbased wargames and the real-robot genre. There are a handful of examples out there, but many have a very steep language barrier, such as the Gihren’s Greed series or the line of Mobile Suit Gundam hex & chit board games, and for whatever reason, many Japanese tactical wargames go for squares, rather than hexes, which are nigh intolerable (especially in cases where there’s no unit stacking).

First thing I’d note about Power Dolls, it has a lot more stuff going for it than you would expect of a game whose primary hook is “everything is piloted by women”.

There’s something about a war between earth(maybe) and colonists on this planet, and you’re playing as the colonists’ defense force in a bid for maintaining independence. Or something. I should really probably go back and go over the settings stuff again. But for whatever reason, the entirety of the defense force is composed of women who pilot mechs and air-planes or drive self-propelled rocket artillery.

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Pew, Pew!

There are apparently only 10 missions, but given how long one of them takes to play through, that’s probably plenty.

Each mission starts with a large operational view of a theater, showing the situation, the mission, and the disposition of both your troops and the enemy’s. You have the option of selecting different pre-defined plans for the operations, which determine things like when forces get dropped, when air support is available, etc.

You have up to three drop-teams of mechs (depending on the operation; the first missions so far have only used two), a drop-team of off-board rocket artillery and a couple squadrons of air support.

Before each mission, you assign mechs, planes and artillery to your pilots, hopefully giving them some sort of configuration of gear and weaponry that compliments their skills. You then have to assign pilots to each landing group; the number of mechs in each group will determine how much air-lift it takes to bring them in; I’m sure that will matter more in later missions, since there are both heavy carriers and light carriers with some air-to-air capability. Any pilots not tied up in air-lift can be assigned fighter-bombers to offer ground support in one of the fighter wings.

So, what goes down, and gets depicted in the operational map, is your long-range artillery gets airlifted into position, then your first drop-team flies in and gets deployed on the tactical map, and as the mission progresses in 5 minute 1-turn increments, your troops are flown in according to the selected plan for the operation.

While the gameplay isn’t as crunchy as Battletech (there aren’t individual components that are tracked), it has a pretty robust selection of actions you can take during a turn. Each mech has three different rates of movement to choose from, which vary in per-hex movement cost, passive spotting radius, and defense against opportunity fire. Attacks are based on the equipment a mech has, but include everything from sub-machine guns and rifles to grenades and smoke screens. Units can drop weapons that are out of ammo to increase the number of realized action points. They can also call in air-strikes and indirect fire anywhere on the map.

I screwed up in a lot of places in the assignment of gear and deployment of forces in the second mission, partly because I didn’t pay enough attention to the mission briefing. I’d landed my troops around the bridge-head I thought I needed to defend, when really I should’ve air-dropped a handful of recon mechs to act as spotters and call in air strikes and off-board indirect artillery strikes while the enemy armored column moved south along the road. Instead, I had a massive tank division more or less punch through my scattered lines. By the time I’d started calling in indirect fire, most of my units who could spot were dead, cut-off or just trying to run away.

I may have to restart this mission so that I can go back at it with both better equipped units (fat lot of good my air-to-air missiles have done in this mission with no enemy aircraft) and better unit placement.

So, the good:

-Fairly nuanced tactical game; you have a lot of customization available to you in terms of how you can outfit your pilots. There are also a lot of different things each pilot can spend their action points on during your turn.

-The operational overview map is really cool. Even though you don’t do much on it, and so far only one mission has allowed for employing different “plans”, it’s a cool part that gives the game a wider feeling of scope than otherwise; for instance, you can SEE where your off-board artillery are located in relation to your front-line troops.

-The character art is pretty good; it finds a decent spot between ‘cute girls in mechs’ and the rougher look of more serious mil-sf animes. There is a character, though, who’s clearly an homage to Emma Sheen from Zeta Gundam.

-Hexes. They use hexes, man, HEXES!

The bad:

-The music is incredibly repetitive. For how long you’ll be playing this, you’re not going to be thrilled hearing the same bad midi-theme playing constantly.

-Speed of play. Not only are the turns incredibly long, this is exacerbated by the fact that the AI turn processes fairly slowly. Enemy turns take too long by most wargame standards. One mission of Power Dolls could easily eat up an entire evening, which is a double whammy when you realize you’re in a losing position after having sunk several hours in. I am probably going to have to go back to a save from nearly 4 hours of gameplay back to take another stab at the second mission (and hopefully this time silver haired yellow cat-eyes, cocky green-eyed brunette, and blue-bandana blonde won’t get blown up).

-The Fog of War doesn’t make sense when you’ve got air superiority and one or more fighter wings overhead. I get why spotting works the way it does, but it would be nice if there was a multi-step fog of war so that planes could spot units out in the open if they’ve bombed a target – even if they’re actually “gone”, you’d have an idea of the troop disposition from the previous turn as your pilots saw it on the way to and from their attack run.

There are also some complaints about the game’s AI; I can’t really judge yet, because if it’s bad, my strategy is probably worse than it is, at least until I figure out what I’m doing. We’ll have to see.

They’ve apparently made several sequels, but I’m not sure if any of them were ever translated into English. There’s also, apparently, a mediocre OVA based on it.

I’ll say that, for now, despite its flaws, I’m really digging Power Dolls. It’s definitely niche-within-a-niche, and the only other game that springs to mind along the lines of this is Cyberstorm (and that game was a very special kind of ugly). I’d love to find something that is mid-way between this and SSI’s Panzer General game, or even in a completely different direction, mid-way between this and Atomic Games/Avalon Hill’s V for Victory series. But as it is, if you’re desperately thirsty for hex-wars and giant robots, Power Dolls will definitely tide you over for a bit. You can find it at most abandonware sites.

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