Monday, February 24, 2014

Ice Cream! Ice Cream!

When Mantic announced their future sport board game DreadBall a lot of people claimed they were ripping off Games Workshop's Blood Bowl although the similarities were little more than superficial. A smaller number of people -- myself included -- noted that the game was rather reminiscent -- in looks at least -- of something else.

It turned out that designer Jake Thornton had never heard of Speedball 2 and any similarities were but a coincidence but that didn't stop a number of fans painting their teams up to mimic the teams in the computer game. It also didn't stop Mantic announcing this today:

That's the chap from the cover of Speedball 2 as a miniature for use in DreadBall, available as part of the company's latest Kickstarter. I'm not backing this one because Blood Bowl is one of my favourite games and I never get to play that so I'm not about to buy something else that will go unplayed; even so I have to applaud Mantic for responding to its fans and -- most of all -- for having a sense of humour.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Guarding the Galaxy (and Bill Mantlo)

When I first read the adventures of Rocket Raccoon as a back-up strip in Marvel UK's Transformers I had no inkling that I'd one day see him on the big screen. To say that I am excited would be an understatement of galactic -- ho ho -- proportions.

I also had no idea how the comics industry treated those who work in it, or how freelance artists and writers in the United States are in real trouble if they are injured or become ill. This isn't the place or time to go into that but I will be going to see Guardians of the Galaxy -- if it's half as good as the trailer makes it look, I will be seeing it many times -- but I will also be donating the price of the ticket -- or tickets -- towards Bill Mantlo's continued medical care.

I wouldn't presume to say that anyone reading this should do the same, but if you want to, you can do so by clicking the button below.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Bear With Us

The party tried to shake the sleep from their heads as the mysterious black-clad figure mistimed its jump and landed with a stomach-churning crunch on the cobbled street below. Whatever was beneath that ragged black cloak did not rise again.

The two dwarves noted with some alarm that both the box containing the now purified bell clapper was missing. Peering down the street they espied a group of small, agile creatures lit from behind by a dull green glow that seemed somehow familiar, and behind that something larger and altogether more ominous lurking in the shadows.

What followed was a mad scramble as the party split up and engaged the mysterious enemies who -- of course -- turned out to be the dreaded rat men they'd encountered back in Averheim. Magnar and Rudiger sprinted downstairs while Aelric and Drandruel took up positions by the open window to provide covering fire. Thorek... well Thorek attempted to emulate Drandruel's wuxia antics from the last time they'd run into the skaven and leaped out the window to engage the four-armed mutant that had given him so much trouble before he'd become a giant slayer, only to fluff the manoeuvre and land hard on his face, shattering a number of his giant slaying teeth.

Poddo Bayleaf, the party's halfling surgeon, slept through the whole thing.

Rudiger fell to his knees clutching his side after an encounter with a gutter runner's poisoned blade and was a skaven's whisker from needing to spend a Fate Point to survive the battle, while Thorek again took a beating. Even though the elves were doing a good job of picking off ratty snipers -- Aelric's lightning bolts in particular proving to be quite destructive once again -- things were not looking so good on the ground as the strain of the party's long and difficult journey from Middenheim began to take its toll.

As such it was a bit of a surprise when the skaven sorcerer threw the bell clapper to the ground in apparent disgust and vanished in a puff of acrid green smoke; although his minions held their nerve for a while longer, with their leader gone the fight turned against them. Scooping up the clapper and the two boxes, the party returned to the Red Empress inn and settled in for a few days of solid bed rest; Poddo earned his share of the party's takings over those few days, and no mistake.

After a while, the party dragged themselves out of their beds and went to visit Rudolf Bruer, the head of the village -- on their way passing a number of villagers commenting on the unusual lightning storms of the night before -- to ask about the monster they'd heard about on their first day in the hamlet. He offered them twenty gold crowns if they could bring back the head of the Beast of Krankendorf and as greedy opportunists public-spirited individuals they agreed to plunder the hamlet's coffers save the good people of the village from the hellish thing.

First they attempted to find out more about the creature and tracked down a number of witnesses, none of whom could quite agree on what the beast looked like; it seemed that the player-characters were looking for something that had wings, horns, one or more glowing eyes, and flew around on a cloud. A search of the settlement revealed that there were large, monstrous tracks outside the village wall and none within the boundary, but the damage to the wall seemed to have come from the opposite direction. Puzzling over these contradictory clues, the party retired to the Red Empress and spent the rest of the day there planning their hunt.

Magnar and Poddo took the first watch that night and were soon alerted to cries of alarm from near the wall. A bank of thick fog enveloped the land just outside the wall and in that cloud there was a bright orange glow, like a single fiery eye; Aelric let off another lightning blast at the eye, prompting a furious roar from somewhere in the mist. The party pursued and found themselves picking with care through treacherous marshland; not enough care it seemed, as both Magnar and Rudiger fell into deep waters, the latter almost drowning after a number of ineffectual rescue attempts from his companions.

Wet, cold, and tired they were as they came to firmer ground and a small clearing filled with the eerie mist. Something roared and before they knew it the party were in hand-to-hand combat with some winged, spiked beast but they also seemed to be the target of some hidden archers. After a brief scuffle, Aelric once again split the air asunder with a bolt of magical lightning, severing the head of the creature, and sending the archers running off into the marsh. Close inspection of the monster revealed it to be a bear clad in spiked armour with wings made of wood and leather; the mist was in fact smoke issuing from a pair of censers attached to the armour and the poor animal seemed to have been drugged. One of the archers was captured and dragged back to the clearing and explained that the whole thing was a scam and that he would have got away with it if weren't for those damned adventurers.

In an unusual display of compassion the party let the conman go after he promised not to do anything of the sort again and then they returned to Krankendorf with the head of the Beast.

The next day the party hopped back on their barge and watching the riverbanks with suspicious eyes every inch of the way -- I can't imagine why -- they travelled on to Altdorf, the capital of the Empire. So relieved were they to be in civilisation once more that they didn't even mind paying the hefty toll to enter the city. They bid farewell to Yan and Yan, booked themselves into the Wayfarer's Rest, then went shopping.

While out and about they discovered that not only were Marcus Baerfaust and Konrad Mauer in Altdorf as expected, but so too were Clothilde von Alptraum and Friedrich von Kaufman. After a bit of egregious metagaming -- of which all involved should be ashamed, boo, hiss -- the party decided to keep an eye on these key personalities -- some of which they considered to be friends -- as one of them was bound to be The Enemy Within. Tsk.

While the two dwarves went out drinking with Poddo and Rudiger hid in his room having developed a fear of going anywhere ever in case he got stabbed again, Aelric and Drandruel visited the taproom of the Wayfarer's Rest and bumped into none other than Clothilde von Apltraum herself. She had sought her friends out upon hearing they'd arrived in the capital and had come to ask them if they could help in the reopening of a play that had been closed down due to missing props; an odd request but Aelric was keen to please von Alptraum and so signed the party up without hesitation.

The mutant elf wizard also spotted another familiar face in the crowd, an elf he'd known from Marienburg. Although the other elf also recognised and acknowledged Aelric he soon left the tavern in disgust at the performance of Great Oozelli, a Tilean artist who put the "trump" into "trumpet". The wizard found this encounter puzzling but paid no more thought to it until next morning when an anonymous letter arrived claiming that Frederick Grosz -- who they hadn't seen since Averheim and who was supposed to have gone to Nuln to live a crime-free life -- was not only in Altdorf but had kidnapped the elf from the night before.

Saturday, February 15, 2014


"The dog next to him stirred. He extended a powerful steel hand and patted the dog gently on its head. The dog snuggled up to Robo's leg and wagged his tail.

Robo continued to stroke the dog's ears. Maybe some day he would feel whole. Maybe someday he would feel less a freak. Maybe someday he could call himself a man.

He gazed at the moon and remembered his family. He saw Jan's loving eyes. Jimmy's smiling face.

Maybe someday...

A single tear dribbled out of his human eye and cascaded down his flesh-and-steel cheek.

Abruptly, he stood and faced the lights of the city far off in the distance.

Somewhere, there was a crime happening."

I hope there's a dog in the remake.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Poddo the (Unofficial) Troll Slayer

Having discovered that the villagers of Mistheim were still alive, Rudiger, Magnar, Aelric, and Thorek -- what do you mean the slayer was back at the barge? -- launched an attack on the beastman camp. Their plan was to pick the beastmen off with ranged attacks and force any survivors to charge uphill to engage them in hand-to-hand combat, and for the most part the plan worked, except that some of the beastmen spotted the player-characters moving into position and the shaman seemed to have misunderstood his role and refused to die.

Even so the fight was not much of a challenge to a party that was by now becoming quite adept at the art of killing; the only real worry was an attempt by the shaman to take control of Magnar and force him to attack his fellows, a ploy that only failed through the use of a reroll the players had earned earlier in the campaign. Boo, hiss, etcetera.

Eyeing up a pair of ominous caves into which one of the beastmen had fled they sneaked into the camp to free the imprisoned villages then hurried them into the forest before any reinforcements could arrive. Meanwhile, back at the barge Poddo Bayleaf -- in theory the party's field surgeon but as a halfling also an adept cook -- was showing Drandruel, Yan, and Yan -- and definitely not Thorek, no siree -- how to make a tasty stew from fresh, natural ingredients and so engrossed were they all that no one spotted a trail of suspicious bubbles near the barge. As such everyone was rather surprised when a river troll lurched from the waters, snapped its jaws around the neck of one of the party's horses, and dragged the poor beast into the murky depths.

This was, I admit, a bit cruel of me. Drandruel's player was not present and Poddo and the two Yans were not what one may call natural combatants, and chucking a river troll at them while the heavy hitters were scrabbling through the woods was a bit harsh.

Of course I chucked a second troll at them too, because I am a moustache-twirling villain of the basest sort.

Even Drandruel, the Michelle Yeoh of the Great Forest, couldn't do much to fight off two of the stinking, dripping monsters, and Yan and Yan were having enough trouble staying alive, let alone fighting back. Thank Sigmar for Poddo Bayleaf then. The halfling surgeon had been bashed and beaten over the course of his journeys with the party but his enthusiasm for adventure had never waned and so he picked a hot coal from the cooking fire and sent it flying from his hitherto unused sling at one of the trolls. A 10 rolled for damage was followed by another and I think one more, and the troll stumbled from the barge with a smoking hole where its eye used to be. The fight went more in their favour after that.

Soon the rest of the party returned to find a pair of shaken boatmen, a beaming halfling, and one fewer horse than they left behind; I don't know if Rudiger, Magnar, and Aelric believed the others, but Thorek was probably annoyed that he'd missed out on killing trolls as he'd never quite ticked that one off his list. Still fearful of a horde of vengeful beastmen pouring out of the woods the party decided to take the surviving population of Mistheim with them downriver -- the extra space created by the missing horse came in handy here -- and this time everyone was eager to leave the blighted village.

The villagers were packed on the barge while the party travelled by road, a decision which caused some concern as they lost sight of the river now and then; as it turned out they needn't have worried about the boat. The party's scouts heard a commotion in the trees as something barrelled towards their position but were not quite quick enough to prepare the others for the arrival of a small orc warband mounted on boars and a gaggle of goblin archers. As if that were not bad enough the orc boss, a hulking brute with a ragged hole where his eye once was took one -- two-dimensional -- look at Rudiger and roared "I know yer! Yer took my eye!"

I didn't expect this fight to be much more than a speed bump on the way to the next town but Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay surprised all of us once again with its capacity for swingy chaos and what should have been a challenging but resource-draining battle became something quite special.

Rudiger wasn't keen on reacquainting himself with the orc boss and the party thought that eliminating the creature first would send the others running off in a panic; a sound plan making good use of knowledge of orc and goblin psychology, but one thwarted by capricious dice as the greenskins would not budge, even when the boss was felled.

The other boarboyz made a nuisance of themselves, hacking off chunks of the party and the boars themselves goring the party's horses and almost killing one or two. Before the boss expired he had given Rudiger a bit of a kicking and one of his boyz almost finished the Ostlander off, and it's fair to say that Rudiger's courage wavered a bit but even so he leaped back into the fray. Over on the other side of the battlefield Drandruel weaved back and forth slicing and dicing and leaving dead goblins in her wake while Thorek, giant slayer and possessed by an ancient hatred of the greenskins, er, failed to hit a single goblin throughout the entire fight.

None of us could quite believe this. Thorek has a habit of almost getting himself killed -- as befits a slayer, to be fair -- but that's more to do with poor tactical reasoning than incompetence. So it was a bit of a shock as this little bundle of muscle and frenzied brutality spent the battle waving his flail at a group of sniggering goblins to no effect as they stabbed him in his remaining kidney.

There was one more surprise to come as Aelric lost control of his magic twice during the fight, the second time resulting in a vision of an otherworldly -- one could say Chaotic -- realm, another insanity point, and, oh, a second mutation! Already burdened with a skull-like face, the elf's head was now also burning with a bright and quite unnatural flame and this is why WFRP has the best magic system.

Even with all that stacked against them, the party did defeat the orcs and goblins and a couple of days later staggered, bloodied and bruised -- although on the plus side, Aelric's head had gone out -- into the hamlet of Krankendorf. There they noticed that the settlement's protective wall had been breached -- the work of a mysterious monster, it was said -- but were eager to get some rest and booked themselves in at the charming Red Empress, an inn named after the infamous Empress Magritta, one of the satirical puns Games Workshop doesn't do any more.

Aelric sensed that something was not quite right and -- having not learned his lesson about frivolous spellcasting -- conducted a ritual to divine the future and discovered that an attempt would be made to steal the now purified bell clapper the party had been carrying with them all the way from Averheim. The elf alerted the others to the danger and they abandoned their separate lodgings to pack themselves into one room so that they could watch over each other during the long night ahead. Alas, tired as they were from their exertions they all fell asleep although one or two of them woke up just in time to see a figure clad in black robes leap out the open window.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

You Can Do Anything With Words and Pictures

When I was about six my mother went to a jumble sale at my school and brought back a number of books for me. One was a strange black and white British published Marvel anthology featuring Incredible Hulk #181, Thor #151, and the Iron Man story from Tales of Suspense #96; the cover was quartered and Captain America was in one of the spaces, although he didn't appear inside. I don't remember the title of the book so if anyone out there knows what it is then let me know.


I also got the 1980 Flash Gordon annual -- I remember nothing but the cover -- and a number of A5 illustrated booklets on British history. These I remember in quite some detail as I pored over them for hours but at some point I lost both the books and any memory of the name of the series, the latter of which made finding new copies somewhat difficult.

A couple of weeks ago I remembered that one of them referred to "Hanoverian Britain" and I thought that might be easier to find than "Roman Britain" or "Mediaeval Britain". So it proved to be.

The books were produced by CW Airne although it's not clear whether he wrote the text, drew the pictures, or both; it's also not clear when these were published but they seem to date from the 1940's or 50's and were probably aimed at children. The books are a bit light on the "words" part of the title but more than make up for it with the pictures, as the cover suggests. I think what I like most is that the pages are filled with pictures of all sorts of stuff, with no particular focus on one specific subject or area and little explanation of what some of the things in the pictures are; it's a bit of a chaotic approach but it's also quite comprehensive in a way, more so than the average Osprey guide, for example.

Airne's series was inspirational to me as a child; there is not much in the way of depth or analysis but the average scholarly history book is quite bad at showing how things looked -- finding reference material for the art in Forgive Us was quite the chore -- so the series appealed to my visual approach back then and I'm happy to report still does today.

I am now also fascinated by the idea of "water tilting"; the whole thing seems bonkers and brilliant and it's a shame that the popular conception of jousting is dominated by boring old horses.

Saturday, February 08, 2014

The Strange Case of the Phantom Militiaman

Having, er, slain a giant Thorek was now officially a giant slayer but he was still out of Fate Points so death continued to nip at his heels as the party travelled south from Middenheim to deliver the now purified bell clapper to Altdorf, the capital of the Empire. The slayer's flirting with oblivion has become something of an ongoing theme in The Enemy Within II: Tokyo Drift and that would continue as the party made their way to Altdorf.

It was the other dwarf in the group, the tin-plated dreadnought known as Magnar, who ran into trouble first. The party's first stop was the town of Delberz, three days south through the perilous Drakwald forest, and about halfway through the trip the road narrowed to cross a stone bridge. Upon that bridge stood a Warrior of Chaos clad in armour black as night; as the party approached the Warrior's deep voice intoned the ominous words "None shall pass."

Back when Robertus von Oppenheim was introduced the players groaned even though Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay has long been notorious for its rampant punnery; I told them at the time that there was better/worse coming up and this was it. Yes, I didn't add the black knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail; he's in the book.

In a party of deadly killers Magnar fancies himself as the Fighter™ so he was the one who stepped forward to challenge the Chaos Warrior. The fight that followed was brutal as two skilled opponents clanged and chopped at each other. The dwarf had the upper hand early on -- because my dice rolling is appalling -- but the Warrior's greater endurance started to wear Magnar down and so a surreptitious signal was given and the mutant wizard Aelric unleashed a lightning bolt that punched through the Warrior's helmet and boiled his head.

The Warrior's body and armour dissolved into a black goo but his mighty broadsword remained, giving off all sorts of dubious emanations that gave Aelric the creeps. Nonetheless Magnar scooped up the blade and added it to his growing collection of fine murder aids.

The rest of the journey to Delberz passed without incident and the party stopped for a bit to ponder whether to continue by road or take the river; both would take about ten days but the river would be safer. Of course. Yep.

While in Delberz the party interrupted an epic conflict between a maid with a broom and a weird mutant rat and wondered if the Skaven from Averheim were back on their trail. They also heard about a series of murders in the town and sensing a potential reward being public-spirited individuals they promised the town's sheriff that they would investigate. A number of the town's most notable residents had been found disembowelled and their mouths stuffed with gold crowns; although it was clear that the murders were linked the sheriff had no other clues and was too busy with other events -- there was an implication of major criminal activity at the docks -- to investigate further.

The party soon discovered that all the victims had come into a fair sum of money and had all done so at about the same time; moreover they all had been members of the town's militia and had served in the same regiment in various conflicts. Two members of that regiment -- Ruprecht Machholt and Gawin Nachtman -- still lived in Delberz and were identified as the best leads; Machholt was holed up in his expensive town house and refused to admit the party until Aelric used his charm and wit -- his fleshless face doesn't affect his social skills, as long as he keeps his mask on -- to encouraged the terrified burgher to open the door.

Using threats of bloody retribution the party convinced Machholt to reveal that years before he and his regiment had discovered a ruined manor house during one campaign and that the cellars of the house contained a sizeable hoard of treasure; the soldiers agreed to share the wealth, all except Ludwig Frohlich, who argued for it to be returned to the authorities and threatened to turn the others in if they went ahead with their plan. Although the soldiers were friends, one among them convinced the others to kill Frohlich and hide his body so that the rest of them could be rich; Machholt was convinced that Frohlich had returned from his shallow grave to exact vengeance.

This seemed no less plausible than four-armed giant ratmen and an elf with a skull face so the party left Thorek and Drandruel to guard Machholt -- their players were absent and there's a concerted effort among the remaining players to keep the slayer alive, which given his profession is somewhat tricky -- while the rest went to Nachtman's cottage to warn him of his impending doom.

Upon arrival they found Nachtman already at the receiving end of a spear wielded by some sort of phantom resembling an Imperial foot soldier formed of shadow and smoke. The figure put up some resistance but couldn't last long against Magnar, Aelric, and Rudiger and soon fell; Nachtman himself was alive but not for long and with his last breaths confirmed Machholt's story.

Then the phantom soldier stood up and attacked them again.

I had great fun with this fight as it was as much a puzzle as it was a brawl. The party didn't have much trouble putting the phantom down but its continued resurrections had them baffled and they tried holy water, fire, even confiscating its spear in their attempts to stop it.

The phantom arrived at Machholt's house soon after the party returned and turned up again at the sheriff's office once they moved Machholt there having arrested him for the murder of Frohlich, hoping that would appease the revenant. The sheriff suggested that she had some paperwork to do and so would leave Machholt with the players for a moment and that they should be careful as all sorts of accidents could happen while she was in the other room; this hint proved to be a bit too subtle for the player-characters, but they came up with their own solution.

They confronted the phantom and told it that Machholt would stand trial for his crimes in the morning and if justice was not served then the phantom could take its revenge on them. One of the advantages tabletop role-playing still has over computer games is that it encourages this sort of player ingenuity; the adventure had a number of resolutions written into the text but the idea that the player-characters would take on the murderers' moral debt was an unexpected one.

This pledge seemed to appease the phantom and it collapsed for what the player-characters hoped would be the final time. The next morning Aelric -- the town's mayor being unavailable, perhaps due to the aforementioned business at the docks -- presided over the trial of Ruprecht Machholt, found him and his cohorts guilty of murder and theft, and sentenced him to death. Magnar volunteered -- he has his eye on the Judicial Champion career -- to do the chopping and so justice was served.

Later that day the party hired a barge from the father-son team of Yan and Yan and settled in for a quiet voyage down the river Delb to Altdorf. On the first night they stopped at The Hooded Man -- not ominous at all, that -- for dinner but chose to sleep on the boat; they woke to found that they'd been robbed of a substantial sum of gold and in possession of a note from "OF" suggesting that they'd offended someone. The party suspected that their double-crossing of the thieves' guild in Middenheim had not been well received and were keen to set off again as soon as possible.

On the fourth day of the trip the boat stopped at the village of Mistheim, which was not a big village but even so the two Yans were certain that its population should have been more than zero. A quick scout of the settlement revealed signs of conflict as well as some sort of monument made of bones and gore; they had seen something similar before. Knowing now that servants of Chaos were about Rudiger agreed with Yan and Yan that everyone should return to the boat and press on but sensing a potential reward being public-spirited individuals Magnar and Aelric argued for the rescue of the villagers.

A few minutes later the player-characters -- minus Thorek and Drandruel, who were making sure that Yan and Yan didn't sneak off -- were deep in the woods following the trail left by the marauding beastmen. Along the way they passed a standing stone covered in arcane markings and splashed with blood; upon passing the stone Aelric felt invigorated and detected an increased level of background magic. A quick experiment revealed that the elf-mutant's magical abilities were increased while he stood beyond an invisible line marked by the stone; the wizard theorised that there were other stones in the woods and that they were somehow focussing and amplifying magic within a certain area.

Rudiger scouted ahead and came upon what looked like a dried river bed in which some beastmen had set up a camp. He counted about half a dozen of the Chaotic things but was disheartened to see what looked like a shaman among them as well as a number of caves nearby that were no doubt packed full of more beastmen. A clear invitation to get back on the boat and forget all about Mistheim then, were it not for the cage full of living villagers at the edge of the camp.