New Wargame Wednesday Series: Battle of the Bulge

It’s been awhile since I’ve had time to document my wargaming here or at Castalia House, so I thought it would be worth highlighting that I’ve got a new one going that will carry us through into the new year.

Recently, I finished a series of Avalon Hill’s The Battle of the Bulge, which I’ll be going over in-depth at Castalia House.

Spoilers, the Nazis went 1-3, with two crushing defeats, a razor thin game-loss and one Strategic Victory (Two mechanized corps across the Meuse, in supply, on their way to Antwerp). But stay tuned each week to find out just how it went down!

This has been one of my favorite games in ages.

Been playing a beer & pretzels Russian Front game the last couple weeks, and may give a run down on those, but it’s been awhile since I’ve gone all out reviewing a game like Battle of the Bulge.

Part 1

Part 2

Also, playing BotB led to an impulse-buy of a biography of Skorzeny (there are special rules for his operation griffon commandos and the 150th Panzer); I don’t know that I’ll be getting many posts out of that (though I may yell at people on twitter about stuff). Still, if I ever run a “Nazis in Pellucidar” game again, I’ll probably make Skorzeny the big-bad.

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V4V: Velikiye Luki

All this World War II tabletop gaming I’ve been doing lately has had me brush of a rancid classic of the DOS era: V-For-Victory.

Bringing an insane degree of crunch to hex-and-chit wargaming that was only possible in the age of PC gaming, the V4V series offered several insanely lengthy “campaign” games as well as shortened scenarios. I put “campaign” in quotes, because really these are battles, granular to the battalion level, and don’t include full theater scope. So, for example, you’re not playing the entirety of the D-Day invasion, you’re playing Utah Beach.

The battle I’m revisiting is Velikiye Luki. I’ll admit, when this game was the new hotness, I didn’t have the patience to play more than the shortest of scenarios, but this time I’m going full-blown, hundreds of turns, the supposedly “90 hour” “full battle”.

Worth noting, each day has 7 turns, and the full Veliki Luki scenario covers the ENTIRE battle from November 19 1942 – January 16, 1943. Thankfully, you can automate some of the functions, which takes a little bit off your hands, and you’re not going to be moving ALL of your units each turn (fatigue and disruption of units that move every turn builds up quick and severely cripple your divisions), but if you’re a micromanager, it can take a bit.

Partly because of the fact that I wouldn’t have nearly as many pieces I’d have to regularly move and implement commands for, and partly because I didn’t have a strong grasp of the system’s nuances going in, I picked the Germans, in an attempt to keep the Soviet tides from overwhelming the fortress city.

I’ve managed to make it up to mid-December, and in some regards, I’ve done better than historically, and in other ways, I’ve done much worse. The score tracking says it’s still a near-run thing, and despite some of impressive tactical successes, the gap is narrowing.

Velikiye Luki itself is doing fine at this point, but my deep rear is in trouble. In the opening days of the battle, my front line was almost completely overrun. Amazingly enough, one engineer and one mountain infantry battalion were dug in snug enough that they were never dislodged, and a few artillery batteries from the south managed to pull back to the city, but the rest were wiped out. The Red Army bypassed Velikiye Luki to the North, took the small stops along the rail line between Nasva and Novosokolniki. The van then turned south and has been just pounding the garrison of Novosokolniki ever since.

I managed to keep Velikiye Luki from being encircled, however. When I saw what would happen if the Soviets could reach the rail to Nevel, I pulled some infantry out the city to create an entrenched flank to mask the rail bridge. This provided the necessary cover for the 1st SS Motorized Infantry, which acted as a siege-breaker, preventing the Soviets who were coming around the north of the city from fully encircling. I was thinking these guys would get MVP, but the 6th Luftwaffe Field Division have proved to be the heroes of the Op.

Even if I’d kept the rail bridge open, it wouldn’t matter if the southern contingent of Soviets overran the rail on the west side of the Lovat. The 6th managed to stop those infantry who’d crossed the Lovat, and with some assists from the 1st SS Mot, kept broke the southern portion of the assault. The 1st SS made a failed attempt to relieve Novosokolniki, but quickly had to return to Velikiye Luki, because supplies were spread too, thin, and the northern encircling forces were still much too strong and still needed to be dealt with. But, with the southern forces being pushed back, the entrenched line could break and join in the push, and the 20th Mot, 6th FJ, and 291st Inf. were able to lift the siege. There are still too many Reds north of the city to take head on, but they’ve pulled back and are no longer putting pressure on the garrison. The 6th FJ has pushed too far east in an attempt to break as many Soviet divisions as possible, capturing headquarters and desperately needed supplies, and finally came to a soviet armored division that wasn’t on ¼ beet-soup rations. At this point, they’re slowly withdrawing back toward the city, in hopes that they can draw the soviets into the range of the garrison’s batteries.

Now that the pressure is gone from the south and largely off from the north and the east, and the final big group of reinforcements have arrived from Nevel, I’m turning my attention back towards Novosokolniki. I’ve GOT to do something to relieve the forces who are trapped there. I’m hoping that the soviet groups who’ve taken the junction are also on garbage rations—there’s next to no way they can trace supplies, because I’ve got all the roads covered, the rail north recovered, and the Lovat (now nearly frozen solid) fairly secure. The Soviets are getting points off me every turn they have guys in Novosokolniki, and over 2k points on casualties. If I can get it back and collect those points for the rest of the game, I should be in the clear. It’ll be up to the very slowly advancing 1st SS Mot, the remnants of Group Chevallerie, and maybe even the 6th FJ, if they can make it around or through the city in their retreat, to relieve the beleaguered security forces at the critical rail junction.

Death Spirals: When Losing in a Fight Ensures You Will Lose the Fight

I’ve been playing Betrayal at Krondor a bit over the last week, and it’s had me thinking about death-spirals in RPGs.

One of the major mechanics in Betrayal at Krondor is a two-tiered HP system consisting of Health and Stamina. You nominally have a 1:1 ratio between these, I believe, but it’s generally something like 2:1 due to the fact that you can only fully heal by resting at an inn. The first bucket of HP that gets depleted is your Stamina—once this is gone, you start losing Health, which begins to directly affect your performance. Each subsequent hit makes it more difficult for you to attack and defend. The effect of this is a potential for a death spiral in which your characters have no chance of suddenly turning the tides of battle because with each round their performance diminishes. Worse is the chivalry which prevents characters from fleeing if one party member is KO’d.

Coupled with the “Near Death” mechanic that makes HP recovery incredibly slow until you’ve crossed a certain threshold of Health regained, Krodor’s health system can lead to some dire straits. I spent a decent few hours wandering in the hills, trying not to starve to death as my rations dwindled.

Our homegame has something similar, in that it uses stamina (in the form of “Grit”) in place of health largely to reflect the difference between taking minor and serious wounds, however we’ve used (until recently) a single bucket. (The new bucket is very shallow and very expensive because it replenishes on a roundly basis, mostly as a way for tanky characters to mitigate ping damage). Once “Grit” is depleted, all damage begins being applied directly to the character’s body parts as wounds and injuries. In most cases, these are either so bad that they lead the character to bleed out before anything can be done for them or they result in debilitating injuries that can lay the character up for weeks or months in-game.

One of the big differences is that there’s not this lengthy dwindling death that a party dies as it loses HP. Despite being semi-two-tiered, G3’s mechanics usually mean that almost any injuries grievous enough to damage beyond HP are going to down a character in a way that puts them down for the rest of the fight. Typical activities that restore HP are not going to be enough to negate the actual injury as opposed to offsetting the fatigue tracked via Grit. It’s a bit easier in a tabletop to mitigate the negative effects of a character being out of commission than it is in a CRPG. In G3, a character gets hurt so bad that he’s out of commission for a few months, we can easily roll up a replacement and, if we don’t want to just retire the old character, pick up the injured character later after he’s had a chance to heal. Not quite as detrimental as being told “these three dudes MUST stay alive AND must stay fed AND need two-three weeks rest in the wilderness before they start healing normally”.

It really is a mechanic I find interesting and am always tempted to find more things to do with. Even if works out wonkily in something like Krondor, sometimes keeping a party at knife’s edge of fight-ready, I think it can add some cool drama and tension. But I also don’t think that it should be a vacuum that will inevitably suck a party down in defeat once a certain threshold has been crossed.

ARPG-Con DCC Session Report (Pt. 2, Evening)

The second DCC session I was in on Saturday at ARPG Con was a run through the level 0 module The Arwich Grinder.

Unlike other DCC modules I’ve played, this one was rather story and role-play heavy, but that wasn’t a bad thing at all!

We had three players and were allowed 6 characters.

The Arwich Grinder is a bit of a fun-house module that is bigger on building atmosphere than instant kill traps. A local family is your typical Lovecraft villain family: reclusive and prolifically inbred with a penchant for the occult. But they’ve got some good will in the town because during a famine they provided everyone in the town with foodstuffs. Well, it turns out they were breeding meat-men; a couple meat-men got out, including one who had the bonnet of “Bessie”(the one young pretty member of the family) in its hand before collapsing dead in the middle of the tavern.

There were a few things that were odd about this session:

  • We were playing as about 10% of the town’s populace, going to check in on the Curwen family to see if everything was all right, in turn-of-the-century America, but none of us had any fire-arms with us. This made it a bit hard to suspend disbelief.
  • It was always a strong point of discussion among the players about meta-gaming vs. roleplaying. While we always opted for the latter, it was funny, because we were all “The obvious solution would be to burn their house down, but we’re here to check on our neighbors and we’re convinced that they need to be rescued from something”.
  • While we “Lost Characters”, they didn’t die—in wargamer parlance, they “successfully exited the map”.

Even for DCC, we had pretty impressive manpower, but we used our resources wisely, treating our characters as the normal townfolk that they were trying to do a normal townfolk thing in the face of otherworldly horror.

  • The meat-man eating pig-slop and brandishing a human rib-cage? The poor retarded lad had to be put down, he was a danger to the community and our neighbors the Curwens!
  • The crazy lady locked in the upstairs? When she came running and shrieking at us, we subdued her, talked her down, put her on a cart and had a few characters drag her back to town for medical treatment.
  • The giant invisible baby in the attic? The characters who saw it were convinced it was a ghost, those who didn’t didn’t believe them or decided it was best not to muck with; we were there to save the Curwens!
  • The crazy old man downstairs? He’s hungry and senile and not a problem; we gave him some food and were all “We’ll come back for you.”
  • In the under-area we run into one of the Curwen couples. “Horrible stuff’s been goin’ on! We’re here to rescue you!” Husband attacks, gets killed because there are still a dozen of us after a few folks went back with the crazy lady. We subdue the wife, because it’s not gentlemanly to kill one of the ladies you’re trying to save. She tells us what’s going on, that the chanting we hear is the patriarch with Bessie and “he’s gonna fix it”. A few characters escort the wife into a room where she’ll be locked up for a minute; we’ll come back for her once we know Bessie’s safe.
  • Patriarch is gonna sacrifice Bessie, tossing her into a pit of boiling mud; a couple folks grab Bessie while we D’Onofrio the Patriarch.
  • Another Curwen couple shows up; we knock out the husband but were unable to apprehend the wife and toddler.
  • We continue sending Curwens back to town in waves, having “rescued” them. Our best characters stay to mop up and look for survivors. Characters going “off-the-map” run into the Constable and tell him they need to send a rider or telegraph to the city, get out the state militia, somebody who actually has guns.
  • We kill a couple of out-of-town cousins who didn’t believe that we’d solved the problem by not letting them summon a tentacle monster and calling up the militia.
  • While we’re unable to find the one woman who escaped or her child, we consider it a job well done that we saved most everybody, our neighborly duty was fulfilled, and G-Men could handle the rest. Also, it seemed like a good time to pack up and move out of New England.

Maybe this was an “easy” module? Or maybe we just “did it right”? The GM was impressed with our run, saying she’d never seen anyone play it the way we had; usually folks would either burn down the house, kill everybody inside, or mess with the giant invisible baby and get killed. I liked it, though, because even though it wasn’t hack & slash, the story emerged from the setting and things we could interact with; nothing felt forced. The GM rolled with our ideas of sending “rescued survivors” back with PCs for medical attention or to jail. The module had a story, but it was non-linear and could’ve played out any number of ways. For us, it played out with no PC casualties, minimal NPC death, and no eldritch horror “fixing” the problem. Ironically, had we NOT investigated, other than at the cost of Bessie’s life, the problem would’ve fixed itself.

It was a great Halloween horror module, even if it wasn’t a particularly good “Funnel”. I don’t think any of our characters would become Level 1 Adventurers following the escapade, but given that no one died, it’s probably the closest you could get to a “flawless victory” in a level 0 module.

Still, I’d like to see this with guns. “Giant nekkid deaf-mutes are shamblin’ into town? A bonnie lass may be in danger? Let me fetch the match-lock from me mantle…”

ARPG-CON DCC Session Report (Pt. 1, Morning)

Over the weekend I attended the inaugural ARPG Con and played in a couple of DCC games. Funnels, of course, since that’s what most folks are into and surviving a funnel is something that you can do in the time-frame of a con one-off and leave the table with a sense of accomplishment.

I don’t know the name of the first module, or if it was even a full module or a portion of a whole, but the second session was The Arwich Grinder. They were good sessions, and I had fun in both, but they were very different. Most significantly, one of them was a story-driven Call of Cthulhu module and I didn’t hate it!

Morning game was framed as a “Mystery” adventure. It was set in the Sutterlands or something. There’s a wedding, the PCs drink from a mystery jug, and they wake up on a haunted farm. It was less of a mystery and more of a puzzle; a puzzle that had to be solved before ghosts killed you.

Table was myself, an experienced gamer who’d not played DCC, and two kids who were experienced players (parents were DCC Judges, and I think they may have been niece & nephew of the folks who organized the con). We each had 4 characters.

Deal was there were 4 farm-houses, a well, a graveyard, and a cornfield. One house had an instant kill death-trap that made no sense so could not have been avoided by smart play (seriously, who would have expected a ramshackle wood cabin would instantly fill with flesh-burning acid in a single round the moment you stepped inside it?). Another house was a “safehouse”, with sigils on the doors that keep the ghosts out, plus two halves of a broken hawthorn staff that you could actually hit the ghosts. Third house had a spellbook that would’ve been great if we were using this to launch an ongoing campaign. Last house had images depicting the puzzle’s story. Cornfield had a pile of corpses around a scarecrow, Graveyard had a pair of earthhounds in it, and the Well had a debris monster.

So, we wake up in the middle of these houses and are almost immediately set upon by ghosts from the woods. Not wanting to make things easy on the GM, we all sent our characters in different directions. Two of my characters got instant killed by the trap (was it a Trap House or an Acid House?) while the other two headed for the house with the sigils that seemed to hold. Other players’ characters ran around in all directions; some with me in the safehouse, at least one other killed by the trap, one triggered the earthhounds, others ran for the other two houses, while one found the scarecrow and the pile of bones. All over the course of a couple rounds.

So, the “story” of the site was that the people who lived there were evil (natch), and a priest had gone to visit them. They killed the priest, broke his staff, threw his holy symbol down the well and left the body as an offering before the Corn Lord.

The solution to the puzzle was to go into the well, retrieve the holy symbol (the debris monster was entirely optional), and place it in the out-stretched hand of the dead cleric. The cleansing rain would destroy the curse and dissolve the ghosts (but only after they got to attack for a couple more rounds). I got a “bonus” (free mini-dice bag!) from the GM for being the first to suggest improvised weaponry (I started with a mithril ingot that my dwarf fastened to his hammer); we were supposed to fashion improvised weapons from things like the hawthorn sigils, the broken staff and at least one silver key to fight the ghosties.

It was a puzzle and we solved it. There was some satisfaction to it, but not a lot of real resolution. Who gave us the jug of magic liquor? Why was there a jug of magic liquor that would take us to redneck Ravenloft? There was not a massive sense of accomplishment, but as a funnel to kick off a campaign, I guess it got the job done.

I did like its scale, however. It felt like the right amount of adventure that would take a character to first level. One of the things that bothered me about Sailors on the Starless Sea was that the upper-castle should’ve reasonably gotten characters to level 1, and level 1 characters would’ve stood more of a chance against the last set-piece encounter. All but the very end of Sailors could be smart-played, which damn near made it a cake-walk for our group, and therefore an ineffective funnel, other than the fact that it expected you to roll up on the last fight and just slug it out toe-to-toe with a(n admittedly weak) chaos avatar and his army of beastmen. With the exception of the instant-kill acid trap that could not have possibly been foreseen, this adventure could be smart-played to a degree where you’d only lose a few characters. Less experienced players would probably finish this one out with at least one character alive apiece, with some smart-plays mitigating character-death.

  • Go straight for the safehouse and wait for the ghosts to leave
  • Burn any corn-husk dolls; this should’ve been a no-brainer, especially as a one-off, but I kept my characters’, and, of course, they attacked me during the final fight.
  • Without pressure from ghosts (whose raids are intermittent), you’d probably only lose one character to the acid-trap
  • Earthhounds are a tough fight for someone who just stumbles into them, but you have economy of action on them like a mo-fo, especially if the ghosts aren’t attacking.
  • You don’t even need to fight the debris monster.
  • At worst, you lose a few characters in the final ghost attack.

All-in-all, much better than “here’s 40 guys, fight them and the characters who live are your level 1”, at least in terms of giving players as much agency as possible over the outcome.

Next, I’ll talk about our power-house, flaw-less victory run of The Arwich Horror!

Sandboxes?

I came across a bizarre article by DM David yesterday on Sandboxes with the click-baity title “Why Dungeons & Dragons Players Don’t Love Sandboxes as Much as They Think.” His article uses an idea of a sandbox in a way that no DMs I’ve ever played with or who have written on the subject have used the term.

David seems to be using it to describe some sort of absolute free-for-all, nothing planned, no direction to go, the DM just runs with whatever the players decide to do at that moment. It’s nuts, so of course that notion of a sandbox doesn’t work and is not what players really want.

“Sandbox” in every case I’ve seen it used has meant a gaming environment populated with multiple locations to interact with and explore, as opposed to “Here is a dungeon; you are going to explore this dungeon; here is a town; when you’re not in the dungeon, you’re at the town.” The sandbox is typically full of toys; you can play in it and you play with the toys that are there. Sometimes you get more toys, which is always cool, or maybe you find a toy that was hidden under some sand.

Just because players enjoy exploring dungeons doesn’t mean that they’re not in a sandbox game or that they don’t enjoy sandboxing!

Yet David oddly seems to imply that there is some kind of ‘pure’ Sandbox that is devoid of adventure hooks for players to choose from.

sandbox

“Herpty, derp, you put a castle to be explored in your sandbox? Looks like you’re going back towards the rails, friend!”

While there is some sound advice for open-world gaming in David’s post, it’s all derived from attacking a strawman notion of Sandbox gaming that doesn’t exist.

“I think seeding your sandbox with locations for PCs to explore may be pushing your story too hard!” said no ‘railroad-phobic’ player ever.

A sandbox may not have rails, but it has boundaries and things to do; David’s notion of a sandbox sounds more like a desert.

Anyway, ChicagoWiz has also written an interesting rebuttal to David’s piece.

DCC’s Sailors on the Starless Sea

DCC’s Sailors on the Starless Sea went from “This is way too easy for a funnel” to “How the hell’d they expect 0-lvl characters to finish?”*

“Uh… Agatha Agartha, my chaotic alchemist wearing the chaos robe and chaos torc kneels in obeisance and hopes for the best… She uh.. was clearly drawn here to serve the chaos lord–it’s her destiny. Also, she pushes Varra, my elven falconer, into the lava.”

With 30 beastmen, a beastman shaman, a chaos avatar, and no win-state in sight, we settled for a non-standard game-over cutscene. Thing is, if we’d had a standard group of level 1 or 2 PCs, I think we could’ve wiped the floor with them.

 So, I’d say that Sailors may be a good 1st or 2nd level module, but was NOT a very good funnel…

I’d like to take a look at the module myself and see just how bad we screwed up, going from unscathed to unconditional surrender.  Ironically, just as predicted, Stinky Pete the Cheesemaker, my -5 character, was the only PC to survive by virtue surrendering to the tax collectors and not hopping on board the stupid dragon boat. As a local, they assumed he’d been captured by the rest of the party, who they’d believed were chaos cultist due to us wearing chaos robes and, in our cockiness, attacking the search party.

The tax-collectors probably weren’t in the module; I think they were there to keep from whittling away slowly and going back to town. The logic was that a) the Barron doesn’t like people messing around the castle, and b) there was some missing tax money, so we had to leave town or get blamed; the tax collectors would eventually look around the keep for the missing money (which was actually either stolen by beastmen or stolen by villagers/thieves who were turned into beastmen, or the thieves who stole it were captured by beastmen). Otherwise we were all “Well, we’ve solved the mystery of the missing new pairs of boots; your sons are dead, Hiram the Blacksmith. Good job, everyone!”

I think that the problem with a lot of funnels may be the lack of incentive for 0-level characters to risk life and limb. Best Funnel I was ever in, we started as prisoners and conscripts of a sewer militia that was a front for cultists. A quick intro, a tough fight with environmental stuff to take advantage of, and a spooky fungus-filled sewer to avoid the stuff in while escaping. One session and we had our 1st level characters.

Someone has recommended to me that it’s a good idea to intentionally kill subpar characters at the first available opportunity, in part because if they do survive, they’ll wreck your campaign experience, but that’s definitely not something I could subscribe to.

I love my crappy sub-par characters! First game, my crappy thief ended up the longest lived and genuinely scariest party member. By the time we ended that game, she’d made it to level 4, had 9 hit points and a collection of faces she’d cured and turned into masks. Plus, with the way the Thief skill tables work, they can be pretty good at doing their jobs regardless of stats. It’s a great class to dump mediocre characters who survive the Funnel into.

But when it comes to funnels, the downside of killing sub-par characters intentionally is that it reduces your economy of action.

Still, as much as I want to like DCC and still want to play more of it, there’s something about it that leaves me feeling a little let down. I like a lot of DCC’s concepts, but every time we put them into practice, we’re all “Gee, I can’t imagine why we ever stopped playing this system D:<” Clerics suck, the magic system is clunky as hell, the crit tables are dumb and don’t work… Really the concept of the Funnel is the one part that my group actually finds appealing (which is why we ultimately rebuilt WHRPG around the concept of a perpetual Funnel).

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*:Ranged characters. If we’d all picked ranged weapons and not lost a few party members to the tax collectors, we probably could’ve taken the hordes with slings and javelins. Also, given the module’s name, I would’ve expected a more nautical theme, not just the train ride to the boss-fight involving a boat.