Space, man… I always wanted you to go…

I find myself in the strange situation of having been to the Dropfleet Commander pre-launch event at the South Wales Gaming Centre and come away having spent no money on Dropfleet Commander. I do have a batch of four strange aquatic-looking spaceships  for the Scourge faction, but those were bestowed upon me for turning up and for buying Simon a pint.

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Scourge fleet. Most of those plates and tendrils are ‘posable’.

Dropfleet Commander, like its companion Dropzone Commander (previously discussed here), is Quite Good. Much like Dropzone, it owes something of a debt to Games Workshop skirmish games (Battlefleet Gothic, in this case), not least because Andy Chambers wrote the rules for it, but the relationship is one of direct ancestry and improvement rather than “it’s basically Gothic without any GW trademarks in it”.

Engagements take place in high orbit, or low orbit, or the actual atmosphere of a planet. There are urbanised ‘clusters’ on the ground  (yer actual mission objectives) unto which you endeavour to deliver troops and vehicles by means of carriers – relatively lightweight spacefaring vessels capable of atmospheric flight. These are escorted into the fray by frigates, cruisers and battleships – other vessels of varying size, most of which can’t go below low orbit.

Unlike its spiritual ancestor, it doesn’t feel like a naval warfare game that’s pretending to happen in space; pin that on the three levels of playable altitude (across which shots can be fired, though munitions travel more accurately toward targets at similar height). The range of scenarios and deployment types also offer alternatives to the ‘ship of the line’ feeling that Gothic was rather prone to at its worst, and the frigates are actually useful (especially the Scourge ones, nippy little shits that can enter the atmosphere alongside the carriers).

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Ben’s UCM fleet deployed for demo purposes. He won, because Simon doesn’t pay attention to victory conditions and how to secure them…

Dropfleet does have one major flaw, however: the means by which all the fun stuff like altitude, damage inflicted to ships and energy spikes (which make a highly active vessel easier to detect from a distance, extending the effective range at which they can be targeted) is actually tracked. It’s done on the models’ bases, which have pegs, holes and swivelling windows which allow coloured card inserts to be seen.

These would make a great UI for a computer game, but on the tabletop they are fiddly as all hell and difficult to manipulate or even see without picking the model up. When one has to pick the model up every time one wishes to change or check its game state, something is wrong. By midway through the demo game on which I sat in, I was scheming what would need to go on a WM/H style card and how such a thing might be laid out.

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Scourge fleet sprues. I have some of these to build and paint. At some stage. Eventually.

This aside, I am sufficiently entertained by Dropfleet Commander to consider giving it and Dropzone a go. I’m attracted by the cross-compatibility between the two games, with the objective areas of the Dropfleet board representing a Dropzone battle, and by the approach taken to releases and backstory advancements, with each phase of releases and accompanying rulebook moving the game’s timeline along by a mere 100 days or so. There’s space in the setting for one to make up one’s own planets and personalities and plotlines, and of course my wheels are already turning with regards scaling up and laminating a map of South Wales so I can infest Blaenavon with Scourge and blow up Barry Island.

Currently Playing – just completed VtM Bloodlines for the second time (the Malkavian ninja and the Tremere lounge singer made it through, the Nosferatu stopped being interesting once I had five dots each in Obfuscate and Potence and I never really mustered the enthusiasm for a Ventrue). Re=acquired Diablo II, because I vaguely missed jamming runes into weapons, but that may have been an Error of Judgement now that I’ve been spoiled by graphics originating after the turn of the millennium.

Currently Modelling – the last bits for the Skorne army (unit of Immortals, Extoller Soulward, Hakaar the Destroyer  – and I’ve even started painting the damn Mammoth, a mere six months after the convention at which it was supposed to make its debut). Also, this miscellaneous lot here:

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That’s Privateer Press Trollbloods (just the battle box, because I happen to like the models); Heresy Miniatures Zombies, Cultists, Blight, Flesh Golem and Werewolf (Blood Bowl team/WFRP encounters/Frostgrave warband); Wild in the Streets goth gang (only had those in the ‘to build’ pile for a year); SmogCon pirate captain.

Currently Reading – besides the rules for Dropzone Commander and Frostgrave, I’ve just reread Down and Out in Paris in London and Equal Rites. I keep looking with guilt at my non-fiction shelves and remembering how few of these books I’ve actually read cover-to-cover rather than raided for references at one time or another…

Currently Spending – more than I should, but I did make nearly £100 from flogging old Orks last week, so it’s fine. Nobody panic.

Orks and Other Inedible Fungus

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A lot of the vehicles are gone, the plastic Rogue Trader boyz are going, and I’ve ended up with more of those second edition box set plastics than anyone should have – but this is finally an acceptable facsimile of the army I would have collected back in the day, if I’d been made of money. Well, nearly. The plastic Battlewagon had already vanished from shelves by then. If I could get hold of one of those, in good nick, for less than triple figures, the vision of Tiny Von would finally be fulfilled.

Currently…

Currently PonderingEmergence vs. Determinism, although not in the usual “railroading r bad and u r bad for doin it” sense. It’s more to do with how the process of designing and ‘solving’ encounters works. Perhaps “Imagineer vs. Prepper” might be a better dichotomy.

Every so often Ben (co-host of that podcast I pretended to do for a while) pops up to ask for my perspective on a strategic or tactical choice that’s emerged in his Star Wars play-by-forum game, and I’m always flabberghasted by the amount of detail – if-this-then-that-ah-but-what-if-this that he presents in these scenarios. It’s not a PbP thing either – he’s the same in tabletop, he seems to think that he needs an elaborate map of his Brujah’s haven and a series of boltholes established all over the city.

Jaro, the DM of my intermittent Roll20 game, is the same – he’s a nice bloke but asking for exact rules on composition, cost and storage of bullets made me raise an eyebrow or two. In Jaro’s  case there’s an element of damage by a dick-move DM who once had an entire party die of exposure because nobody had said they were wearing clothes (this is a dick move because they were in mid-adventure when he dropped this bombshell). Jaro is something of an enthusiast for precision and adherence to rulebook and sourcebook, I think because he wants insulation from this sort of cockbothering behaviour, but it makes for some friction between us since I am definitely not inclined to the “gotcha” nor to the elaborate and intricate modelling of situations.

What I am about is a sketchier kind of gameplay where the fun is not in solving an elaborate situation with detailed resources and forward planning, but in making shit up as you go along. If there needs to be a chandelier for someone to swing off, there will be a chandelier (although dice must be rolled for swinging and the results of the roll are binding). If there needs to be an escape route it will be there when someone looks for it, if they look for it in a plausible place and if  they roll well on some sort of “can you find it in time” check.

This applies whether I’m playing or running the game. If I’m playing… well, the 5e game has now settled down into a predictable and well-oiled machine where I come up with a bare-bones plan which will work and leaves room to improvise, Charles overcomplicates it with needless flourishes and excessive moving parts which nevertheless impress Jaro into letting us get away with it, and we both have to bully Arianna into taking any sort of risk when executing the plan.

(Sidenote: Look, if you roll a rogue you have to accept that you’ll be sent on dangerous sneaky solo stuff, it’s the law, if you wanted to stay at the back and be safe you should have bagged the coveted Cleric/Mage slot and then I’d have been slavishly defending you and not Charles, and yes, I know you’re reading this, Ari, because you hang on my every golden word.)

I suspect this sort of thing has come to my attention because I’ve been playing a lot of single-player CRPGs lately, and those are all about picking your way through a predetermined encounter or chain of quests that trigger in a particular order. I generally suck at this since I’m used to muddling through and improvising, not having to talk to that guy to get that objective before I do this thing so I can actually get XP and phat lewtz and so on. I am getting better at it, but I still occasionally think “can I not just come out with my hands up, spin a plausible yarn about being attacked by four big lads with guns, and coming off best in the shoot-out because I’m brilliant, and then Dementate their disbelief away?”

 

Currently Playing: Besides occasional sessions of 5e or LotFP on the Intertrons, I am mostly playing Vampire: the Masquerade – Bloodlines. I tried this for about five minutes back in the day (real time, strike one! FPS/action controls, strike two! likelihood of accidentally punching a hooker, breaching the Mass-Charade and getting shot in the cobblers, strike three!) but, like Planescape, I’ve reappraised it after a few years away. Buying one of those Razr game controller things (so that I didn’t wear out one half of my expensive split ergonomic keyboard, which I bought so that I didn’t wear out my ailing wrists while typing several thousand words a week for work) has helped me learn how to FPS even as it’s made my MMO-ing suffer and contributed to a drop-off in Warcraftery.

Bloodlines is fun, in a very oWoD kind of way – it feels like a sort of farewell tour of all the wacky shit which was due to disappear when Time of Judgement came out, and if approached in that style it’s not bad. Sadly, the game does indulge in the Major Sins of front-loading, reducing interactivity while NPCs show off in cutscenes, and including arbitrary combats which show up the limitations of my social-build Tremere, but… well, it’s oWoD.

(ETA: This is the sort of business decision which only makes sense if you’re White Wolf. You’re in the process of wrapping up your old game line and launching a whole new universe, and you make your tie-in video game a valedictory salute to the old rather than a launch platform for the new world with its new concepts, encouraging crossover and buy-in. It’s almost as bad as making a mechanistic nerdy-boy game with no particular focus while paranormal romance is ruling the roost, or taking the makers of a major motion picture based on a short story within your setting to court instead of using the buzz to republish and revamp said material. Essentially, you are spectacularly dumb and you deserve to go out of business within the decade.)

I am playing the GOG.com version with the extensive fan patch that actually makes it playable. I am also playing a Malkavian who thinks he’s a ninja (with a katana and a six dot Melee pool he is not entirely wrong about this, and shafting Sabbat thugs up the arse from Obfuscated safety has yet to get old) and a Tremere lounge singer (shagging her way through most encounters and heavily reliant on Disciplines in a scrap). I experimented, briefly, with a Ventrue dominatrix and a Nosferatu eco-terrorist hacker, but the Ventrue was a bit dull and the Nosferatu is definitely hard mode for someone not accustomed to first-person stealth-em-up. If this lot were all in the same party it’d be ‘perfect’ Classic WoD.

Incidentally, while the other V:tM game was very faithful in its adoption of Disciplines but introduced some overly granular percentile bollocks for stats and had an awful level-by-dots feeding/healing/buffing mechanic, this one keeps the elegance of the dot-based system (streamlining it with fewer dots and more defined combinations) and does good things with Disciplines. Streamlining Auspex, Presence, Obfuscate and so on as per the physical Disciplines and eliminating the action economy horrors  of Celerity (as far as I can tell, having not gotten to use it yet) is a good idea. I’ll have to try it in the tabletop game at some point. Hacking White Wolf’s excessive mechanisation = good call.

 

Currently Reading: The Prince (the treatise by Machiavelli, not the Netherese review/antiSocJus blogger/belch-vector, although I’m reading his blog too). Rob Kuntz was surprised that I could manage to write decent Renaissance-esque intrigue settings without having read The Prince and I’ve been meaning to make good on this for a while now. The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England (decently accessible social history, conveniently attuned to the needs of a modern reader who wants to understand the difference between Now and Then, possibly recommended reading for twenty-first century gamer-prats). The first four Discworld books (yes, again), although I’m currently on a reduced-fiction diet as I have bought quite a lot of non-fiction (Spinoza, Castaneda, Bowker’s biography of Orwell, the rest of Padel’s poetry essays, and a collection of excerpted Brecht) and had it sitting there for months.

 

Currently HobbyingI bought a job lot of cultists, demons, villains, zombies etc.  from Heresy Miniatures (they have a sale on until the end of July, buy now, beat the rush, help Andy recover from honourable Dragon-related fiscal suicide). These will be making up a Blood Bowl team/rounding out a Frostgrave warband/providing something for my Otherworld adventurers to slap around in RPGs. I was working on a new wargaming table but space seems to be at a premium these days and that one may have to go the way of the dodo. I realise that I barely wargame at all these days, which has checked my hand every time I consider giving Frostgrave or SAGA a proper poke. Insert gripe about how I am old and tired and hate learning new rules, too.

 

Currently Smoking: Poles.