The Conqueror Worm

Posted: April 8, 2013 by mearrin69 in Gaming
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RPG-BurningWheel-BurningEmpiresLL and I have been collecting games built on Luke Crane’s excellent The Burning Wheel role-playing game for a while now. I’ve had Mouse Guard, based on the David Petersen graphic novels of the same name, for some time and have longed to play it. We recently picked up both the base fantasy core book and Burning Empires, a game based on Christopher Moeller’s gorgeous Iron Empires graphic novels. We sat down to begin exploring the latter on Monday and discovered that it’s a pretty amazing game with a lot of potential.

The book is absolutely beautiful. It’s nicely printed in full-color on glossy paper and runs to 655 pages. The organization’s a bit confusing at first but actually flows quite well for learning the game: a brief introduction to the setting and how the game works followed by the tools you need to get started playing. Most RPGs based on licensed materials start you off with a setting-dump and I was expecting something similar here. Seems that goes against Luke Crane’s basic philosophy and, after figuring it all out, I think I might agree with him. Still, the relative paucity of setting material sent me in search of a place to buy the Iron Empires source material! The dead-tree editions are more difficult to locate but you can get them in PDF format here and here.

The setting is intriguing. Humanity, in its distance past, established a vast interstellar civilization spanning hundreds of light-years in every direction. At the peak it had mastered the manipulation of the fundamental forces of the universe and learned to shape planets and even humans themselves to its liking. Enter the vaylen, a parasitic worm-like creature that can merge with a sentient being and take it over wholly. The vaylen found humans to be rather delectable, an experience far more pleasant than provided by any of its former hosts (most of which have been bio-engineered creations). The Worm, as they are lovingly termed by their human enemies, took thousands of worlds and billions of human hosts and still hungered for more. By the time of the Iron Empires, humanity has fallen greatly since its heyday – with eight petty squabbling empires too concerned with gobbling up the remaining scraps of their former glory to focus on properly defending against the terror arrayed against their southern borders.

IE-Master-Map-(revised)The game system is also interesting. It’s not really a role-playing game. Well it is, just not in the form many modern players expect – a band of murder-hoboes moving from place to place, killing enemies and taking their stuff. Players and the GM take on the roles of central figures in one planet’s conflict between humanity and the vaylen but the game is structured so that you contribute to an epic story of that planet’s struggle. The GM is the pacer and arbiter of the rules, not the end-all authority whose word is law – he and his characters have to follow the rules too. The players help to create the setting during play, acting through their characters to defend their world, or turn it over to the Worm.

You start by collaboratively building the planet under contest using the tools provided in the World Burner. The players and GM answer a series of questions about the world, its people and factions and so on, to flesh it out. The end result is a battleground on which to play out the coming vaylen attempt to conquer it – including some mechanical details that become important to both sides once the conflict starts. You also come up with concepts for the central figures in the conflict, people who are key members of the government, church, military, and other important institutions. Players may choose to play some of these roles later, or create their own related characters, while the GM will flesh out and play the others for the opposition.

Then you use the Character Burner to build up your character using Burning Wheel’s clever lifepath system to model her growth from birth to her present situation, which yields information about skills, resources, contacts, traits, and important mechanical statistics. When completed you’ve got your world and important institutions and a group of PCs and key NPCs that are all interlinked (to some degree) among themselves and the groups that make your world go. The default situation has the PCs working against the vaylen while the GM tries to win the planet for the Worm, but you can reverse those roles if desired.

The game is then played out in three phases: Infiltration, where the vaylen begin their intrigues; Usurpation, where key figures are taken over and the stage is set for the end-game; and Invasion, where all pretense is dropped and the Worm arrives in force to claim its juicy prize – a new farm world brimming with delicious human host meat puppets. There’s a fairly complex system set out for players and GMs to create scenes and build to inevitable conflict situations, where the real stuff gets resolved. As things move forward, the sides gain or lose ground, resulting in an eventual winner and loser for each phase. The winner gets an advantage during the next phase and early gains could easily result in a steamroller effect as the campaign draws to a close.

Of course a campaign in played out over tens of sessions so we didn’t get quite that far in our initial exploration! LL and I used the World Burner to start fleshing out a planet. We ended up with an “interior world”, not quite on the border but not quite in the safe core of one of our eight pocket empires. Its atmosphere supports human (and vaylen!) life and is predominantly (>50%) land but is geologically young and volcanically active. That makes it a good resource producer and we ended up deciding that it is administered not by the nobility but by a merchant league. It is protected by a professional volunteer military but nobody is all that bothered by the vaylen threat at this point – they’re focused on grubbing for ore for sale to their greedy neighbor lords. Factions include a competing merchant force, organized crime, and indigenous life-forms, all of which may become pawns in the coming war. The planet is protected by standard quarantine procedures and import/export regulations, paying close attention to weaponry, pharmaceuticals, and immigrant labor.

We’ll add some color to the world next session and flesh out key figures but I think we’ve got the start to a pretty good battleground for a vaylen invasion. I picture it being a chartered merchant world somewhere in the Karsan League. Maybe it supplies fuel for Hammer fleets or ore to build their massive hulls. That would make it a prime target for vaylen take-over; not only would they gain human hosts but also resources from an under-protected, strategically important world in the midst of one of their strongest neighboring human empires.

I’m definitely curious to see where it goes!

Achtung, baby!

Posted: March 4, 2013 by mearrin69 in Gaming
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sl_boxcoverLL and I dug deeply into my games library this Monday, laying hands on an old wargame gem we’ve both barely ever touched: Avalon Hill’s Squad Leader. I picked up this game and some of the accompanying expansions way back in, let’s see, 1988 or so. I played a couple of times with some mostly disinterested parties and a few times solo (which isn’t much fun). LL played a few times as well, when a few “grognards” found enough charity in their cold hearts to let a girl sit in on their game. Needless to say, neither of us remembered much about the rules.

They’re not that bad, actually. Though there’s a lot of material in just the basic game, the rules are broken into sections providing bite-sized gulps needed to play progressively more complicated scenarios. The first scenario, which focuses on the Russians trying to oust the Germans from a section of Stalingrad, comes with rules that introduce basic movement and combat, support weaponry, unit morale, and other essentials. The second scenario brings in demolitions charges, smoke and concealment, and some other things. Tonight we played the first scenario, called “The Guards Counterattack”.

You can see the setup in the picture below, stolen from because the one I took didn’t quite come out! The German counters are light blue and the Russian counters are brown. The Germans have a number of good leaders, several LMGs, an MMG, and a HMG. The Russians have a lot of troops, a couple of pretty good leaders, and an MMG. The scenario specifies in which buildings the units should be set up. The goal is for the Russian player to capture two more stone buildings initially held by the Germans than they lose of their initial holdings within five turns.


Those of you used to absolute balance in gaming might be turned off by “proper” wargames, which often present a pretty one-sided situation based on historical events with only a little attempt to provide “fairness” to both sides. This scenario isn’t that badly unbalanced but the Russians definitely face a tough task. They’re facing a bunch of crack German troops armed to the teeth with MGs and sheltered in good cover. To win, they’ve got to advance across open ground (thankfully fairly short stretches of it) and engage the Germans up close. A battle of attrition is likely to end badly for them…and isn’t possible anyway, given the five-turn limit.

Squad Leader is played in turns with one player going first, followed by the other. Each player turn includes several phases that, in this basic scenario, boil down to: 1) rallying demoralized units, 2) laying down preparatory fire, 3) moving units that didn’t prep fire, 4) fire by defending units, 5) firing by units that moved or stayed put but didn’t prep fire, 6) routing units demoralized by fire, 7) advancing (possibly into close combat), and 8) conducting close combat. In this scenario, the Germans set up their units first and the Russians take their first turn.

This was just an introductory game and I’m not going to give a play-by-play here, but I’ll cover the highlights and things we learned. LL chose to play the Russians and I the Germans. We set up and she took her first player turn. Right away we found out how important the Preparatory Fire phase can be. She got a couple of her units working together as a fire team and brought a lot of rounds down on a small group of Germans manning an LMG. The leader failed his morale check and the soldiers did likewise, becoming “Broken”. Broken troops can’t contribute to the fight and must run to cover in the Rout phase…though they can shelter in place if they’re already in cover and there aren’t any adjacent enemy units. Also, if they fail another morale check (which they might have to make if a stacked leader fails his or they come under fire again) they are eliminated completely!

The other important bit comes from the organization if the Combat Resolution Table (CRT). The Squad Leader CRT is arranged in columns by ascending points of Fire Power (FP). By combining the FP of stacked and adjacent units, you shift your die result further to the right on the CRT. With just 2 or 3 points of FP, you have to roll very low to have any effect; but at 24 or 30 points of FP you start to get into deadly territory. Your roll is modified by things like the influence of leaders and terrain effects: shooting at a target in a stone building adds three to the roll, for instance, making low-FP attacks on units in cover virtually useless.

So: if you want to take a position guarded by units in a building you’re going to have to use the Prep Fire phase to lay down some good cover fire to make them keep their heads down so that your advancing troops don’t get cut to pieces in the Movement/Defensive Fire phase. If you can kill or demoralize the defenders then your moving units can get out there, fire again, and then advance into close combat to finish off the survivors and send the Broken units running for more defensible cover.

Your moving units also have to be concerned about Line of Sight to other enemy units. During the Defensive Fire phase, defending units get to take shots at the attackers. If your unit are moving in the open and cross the LOS of a unit in range, those units get to fire at yours…with a big bonus to their roll on the CRT. This, as we found when a group of LL’s units crossed a street guarded by three German units with three LMG support weapons, can be quite deadly. Several of her units were gunned down on the move and completely eliminated.

There’s a lot more to the strategy and tactics of this game than I can possibly cover here…and we certainly haven’t learned everything there is to know, even about this first introductory scenario. Hopefully we’ll get to play Squad Leader some more over the next few months and I can share some more details. If you ever find a copy on eBay or on the used shelf at your FLGS I have to recommend you pick it up!


Posted: February 20, 2013 by mearrin69 in Gaming
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zombicide_box_th2LL and I tried out Zombicide from Guillotine Games tonight. In the game, you take the role of one of six survivors facing down a zombie horde as you attempt to accomplish certain objectives. It’s very well done, with great components including nine map tiles and various tokens printed on thick cardboard and 71 nicely sculpted 32mm miniature figures. There are six survivors to choose from and each has special features that make them unique.

Zombicide has some unique gameplay features. The play sequence has the survivor characters acting first, followed by the zombies. On their phase, the survivors can each take three actions (more if they have special abilities allowing it or have gained some experience). They can move from one “zone” to another, attack a zombie, search a room or vehicle, open a door, and more. As survivors kill zombies and accomplish objectives, they gain experience. As a survivor’s experience grows, so does the danger level of the game. Survivors start out at the “blue” danger level but move quickly to “yellow” as they reach seven experience points. It takes a bit longer to get to “orange” and a bit more to get to “red”. At each level, they gain new abilities: an extra action at yellow, and selectable skills differing for each survivor at each of the other levels.

What does the danger level mean? New zombies enter the board at “spawn points” at the end of each turn and are placed in revealed rooms after doors are opened. To determine how many and which type of zombies appear at a given point, the players draw from a deck of cards and read the results shown. At blue level the usual result is one or two normal zombies and sometimes nothing. At yellow and higher, however, things get a little tougher, introducing larger groups of zombies, “runners” (two attacks and moves each turn), “fatties” (tougher to kill and accompanied by two “walkers”), and (heaven forbid) the “abomination” (a scary fatty that’s very hard to take down). The game starts out slowly but ramps up quickly: once the first survivor reaches seven points of experience, the danger level goes to yellow…for everybody.

zombicideZombies are drawn toward any survivors they can see or to the noisiest spot on the map. Actions like shooting a gun or bashing down a door with an axe generate a “noise token” in that zone. Additionally, each survivor counts as a noise token in the square he or she occupies. This sounds bad but can be used to your advantage: put your badass zombie killers somewhere and start up chainsaws and such while your stealthy roller-skating waitress survivor goes around and opens doors with a crowbar (silent). Nobody said zombies were smart.

All survivors start out with a (randomly dealt) piece of equipment and can find more by searching (but only once per survivor per turn). The former cop starts with a pistol then each survivor is dealt one card from a deck containing a pistol, a fire axe, a crowbar, and three frying pans. The pans suck. Equipment is key to surviving the game: you need better gear and weapons to survive the zombie onslaught and accomplish your objectives. You can search a room that’s free of zombies by spending an action and drawing from the search deck. Most of the time you’ll find a weapon, supplies, or a special item (such as a flashlight, which lets you draw two cards when you search). Sometimes you’ll find a zombie…

Each weapon card tells you how many dice you can roll with each attack, the number needed to hit, and the number of wounds caused by the weapon. It also shows you whether it can be dual-wielded…if you have two of the same weapon you can use both in the same attack, giving you more dice to roll. Melee weapons are only useful against zombies in your zone. Ranged weapons might reach out as far as three zones. The extra twist on ranged weapons is that you’re pretty much going to kill survivors in whatever zone you shoot into…so only shoot into squares containing only zombies. Walkers and runners take one point of damage to destroy. A fatty takes two. The abomination takes three…which means you need some major firepower (like a Molotov cocktail) to kill him.

LL and I each took three survivors and we got the hang of killing zombies pretty quickly. We spent several turns searching for equipment and killing the zombies that came our way. Doug, a dual-wielding office worker, found a pair of SMGs. Another found a rifle and paired it with a scope. Together they made a pretty good killing team. Before we knew it, we were at the yellow danger level. Then the abomination showed up. Seems I remember that LL’s survivor killed him with a Molotov. Later, as things heated up, we were still doing okay…until we drew a couple of cards that didn’t add new zombies but instead gave the ones already there an extra attack-move phase. Suddenly we were overrun and facing some tough choices. Needless to say, the game ended in tears…

The game was pretty fun and easy to play and I think we’re both looking forward to trying it again. I understand that Guillotine is working up a new add-on featuring a mall, six new survivors, and zombie versions of the old and new survivors. Now that sounds like fun!

The curious case of Mr. Magnetti

Posted: February 4, 2013 by mearrin69 in Gaming
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LL and I met as usual on Monday night. This week it was back to RPGs with a short excursion into the world of Call of Cthulhu, with a session run by LL. She told me she had drummed up a little solo adventure and gave me some parameters so I created a character on the spot. I used the 5th-edition rules and rolled randomly, play-as-they-lay. We gabbed randomly for the better part of the night but finally got in some playing at the end of the evening, as a man named Faustino Magnetti decided to investigate something odd and ended up getting more than he had bargained for. Isn’t that always the way with CoC?

1898_prison13_DeerIsland_Boston_NewEnglandMagazineOn this particular morning in early June of 1928, the weather at Boston’s Deer Island House of Correction is sunny and fine. Most of the inmates are enjoying the weather in the exercise yard but we find Mr. Magnetti working in the prison library, where he has made himself most useful over the past six months of his confinement – being a man of letters incarcerated amongst a population of mostly lower-class petty criminals.

Before continuing, however, perhaps we should learn a little more about our protagonist: Faustino Magnetti was born in the year 1885 in Brooklyn, New York to working-class Italian immigrant parents. His father was a stone-cutter and his mother took in laundry and did sewing for the wealthier residents a few blocks over. They were poor, but not destitute, and managed to put away a bit of money so that their only child, Faustino, might attend college and see a better future than they.

Faustino was a diligent student, though not the brightest, and did well in school – eventually performing well enough on his placement exams to earn a place at the esteemed Miskatonic University in Arkham, Mass. He applied himself eagerly to his studies in the rapidly developing field of anthropology, with a specialization in archaeology, and received a B.S. in 1907. By this time, his father had died in a construction accident, though his mother attended his graduation ceremony with teary eyes.

Mr. Magnetti, as we shall now call him, took work as an assistant to the head of M.U.’s Anthropology department and rented a small apartment in Arkham for himself and his now-widowed mother. In his role at the university, he began to travel widely on school expeditions, visiting South America often. It was there that he learned to speak Spanish (quite well) and Portuguese (passably well) and discovered much about the vanished cultures of that continent. While away on one of these trips, in March of 1918, his mother took ill with the Spanish Flu and passed away. Her body was cremated and, on his return, Mr. Magnetti attended a small ceremony at the Catholic church where the two often attended Mass.

DeerIsland_prison1_Boston_LC_HABS_ma1445By this time, Mr. Magnetti had accrued a little money and some measure of reputation in his field so began to fund his own trips to Peru and other S.A. countries to explore the leavings of the lost civilizations of the Aztecs, Incans, Toltecs, and so on. He also began “importing” certain artifacts found during his expeditions for sale to discerning collectors of such things. On his return to Boston from just such an outing to Peru’s Callejón de Huaylas highlands, where he had uncovered a number of figurines of obvious religious significance and a curious crystal skull, he found himself answering some probing questions by U.S. Customs agents.

The unusual artifacts stirred their interest and, upon further investigation, it seemed that some of them resembled descriptions of items that had been placed on a certain “watchlist” issued by the Peruvian government. Though the U.S. government felt no specific urge to honor the Peruvian demands for extradition, or at least life imprisonment, it did hand the case over to the state court in Boston. He was convicted on a fairly minor charge of Possession of Stolen Property and sentenced to two years at Deer Island, with the possibility of parole after serving one year. And, so, this is where we find Mr. Magnetti, on this fine June day…perhaps half-way to his freedom and resumption of life as usual.

untitled2While shelving books in the library at about half-past ten o’clock, he noticed an eager young man waiting for him by his book cart. He bore a note for Mr. Magnetti from one of his fellow inmates, a Mr. Byron Humphrey. Mr. Humphrey was a career petty criminal with a history of minor embezzlement, fraud, and so forth. His love of alcohol and lack of innate intelligence has prevented the man from truly excelling at the criminal arts, pegging him squarely as a failed “fakeloo artist” and shabby “scratcher”. Mr. Magnetti has spent quite some time in the library with Mr. Humphrey over the past several months, helping him research his various pet projects – most of which seem to deal with this or that bit of obscure occult knowledge. Though Mr. Magnetti little believes in any of that nonsense, he has found his work with Mr. Humphrey interesting due to the many parallels between American occult beliefs and the religious practices of several ancient South American cultures.

untitledThe note from Mr. Humphrey was, as usual, intriguing. It invited Mr. Magnetti to visit him in his cell in two hours for a glass of “toilet wine” and to view an unusual rock he had found in the yard that morning. The rock bore a strange symbol, transcribed on the note, and Mr. Humphrey wondered if Mr. Magnetti had ever seen it or something like it in his studies. He had not, though it did resemble certain hieroglyphics he had seen in his field work. He examined a few likely volumes, the prison library being well stocked with unusual reference volumes bequeathed by the estates of wealthy Bostonian families from time to time, and found something similar – possibly bearing some religious significance, a reference to “Old Ones” worshipped by some primitive cultures. He decided that perhaps a quick letter to Professor Morgan, the current head of M.U.’s Anthropology department and an expert in many hieroglyphic languages, omitting the details of the discovery of course, might turn up the best possible answer in the shortest amount of time.

By then nearly two hours had passed so Mr. Magnetti posted an “Out to Lunch” sign on the library desk and went to Mr. Humphrey’s cell. He discovered the old fellow dead drunk, passed out on his bunk with a mostly empty glass of the aforementioned swill on the floor near his dangling hand. He shook Mr. Humphrey and called his name to no effect, though the man did roll over and drop an oddly-shaped flat rock from his flaccid hand onto the floor. “No reason to waste a visit,” he thought, and picked up the rock to examine it. The rock itself was of a curious reddish granite though, being no expert in geology, Mr. Magnetti could make no more of it than that. The symbol was indeed quite interesting and he could immediately see that it had not been created by carving or gouging, as it bore no tool marks whatsoever. It almost appeared to have been melted into the surface of the rock.

untitled1That would have been curious in itself, of course, but curiouser yet was what happened next. As Mr. Magnetti examined the symbol on Mr. Humphrey’s unusual find, he began to feel odd – a bit dizzy and slightly faint. In the dim light of the cell, lit by a single bulb dangling from a cord, the symbol almost seemed to be growing. Then, in fact, he became sure that it was growing…expanding beyond even the edges of the rock on which it was engraved. The effect was mesmerizing and, as the symbol continued to grow to surround Mr. Magnetti bodily, his faintness became quite urgent and he lost all sensibility, dropping to the floor in a heap.

When he awoke the light had faded considerably, as if many hours had passed. No lights could be seen anywhere, which was strange because the turnkeys should have already begun rousting the inmates back to their cells for dinner and headcount by this hour. He reached out but could not find the rock he must have dropped when he lost consciousness. He stood and carefully pulled the chain for the cell light. It illuminated the cell only faintly, leaving the corners in deep shadow. “Must need a new bulb,” he thought, as he noticed that Mr. Humphrey was no longer on his bunk…though his mostly empty glass had remained in its previous location.

Mr. Magnetti turned to the open cell door and walked toward it, intending to peek out and look up and down the remarkably quiet cell block. As he did so he nearly fainted again, feeling as if he was sticking his head from a completely dark room into a lighted one…a lighted room that looked remarkably like the cell in which he himself was standing. He was surprised to see a man standing with his back turned just a few feet away. He started to say something to get the man’s attention when he realized the man was wearing his exact suit of clothing. Astounded, Mr. Magnetti jumped back into the cell and looked around, noticing that the back wall of the cell was completely black. Still startled, he reached for Mr. Humphrey’s rickety stool and picked it up, pushing it through the cell door while watching over his shoulder. He relaxed when he saw the legs of the stool appear through the back wall.

“Only a dream,” he thought, “I feared I must be going mad.” Clearly relieved, Mr. Magnetti confidently stepped through the cell door and reappeared…on a spiral staircase surrounded by and descending into darkness. He could just make out the roof of a cavern far above his head. “One devil of a dream, I guess! Well, let’s see where this goes,” he thought, and began to climb down the steps. Suddenly, a thin gout of purplish flame rushed up from far below and licked the ceiling of the cavern. It soon subsided and, as it did so, he followed its ebb to notice that the flame had illuminated the cavern floor. There he saw two men close by the flame. They were curiously dressed, wearing robes and headgear resembling a mitre such as that worn by Bishops of the Church.

And…that’s where we left it. A devil of a dream indeed. Let’s hope, for his sake, that Mr. Magnetti wakes up soon. I have no doubt that LL will have some fine tortures in store for our protagonist next Monday. I just hope he survives…I’m growing to like him.

NB1: The word “curiouser” does not appear in my dictionary either. I figure if it’s good enough for Lewis Carroll then it’s good enough for me…and given the ever-deepening rabbit hole our Mr. Magnetti is currently traversing I thought the reference to Alice’s adventures was somehow appropriate.

NB2: It might interest you that a much more recent resident of Deer Island, Mark Wahlberg, stayed in the very cell Mr. Humphrey occupied in 1928. Well, we don’t know that for sure, but his time there certainly straightened him out some…so maybe he found a rabbit hole while he was there too. 

Catching up…

Posted: February 4, 2013 by mearrin69 in Admin

I’ve been a poor blogger lately and will be making up for it over the next couple of weeks. We’ve played another season of our GURPS: Zombieapocalypse game on Sunday and several sessions await recapping. Today, we started doing character creation for a short Traveller interlude, using the original rules (for now anyway). We’ll finish up and start playing next Sunday, so that’ll be the first blog entry on that game. On Mondays, LL and I have been playing a mix of things: Our “Psionic Scream” Microscope game, the Star Wars space miniatures battles game, Risk, and maybe one or two others. I’ll start catching us up with Risk.