Mysterious fane on the banks of the Sea of Ohkotsk

Mysterious fane on the banks of the Sea of Ohkotsk

Saturday, 27 August 2016

Keeping it on the Borderlands

Lately I came across a review of B2 Keep on the Borderlands that was...well, let's say net negative.[1]

It came at an opportune time in that after many years of gaming drought I have at last found a few people who are interested and recently started a B/X sandbox style game using B2 as its core. While I'm not entirely surprised to find that a modern gamer (23 years later!) found B2 a little wanting, there were aspects of this review that surprised me a little. Frankly, I thought that the author really didn't get some dimensions of the module, though I'll grant that the treasure is...blase.

The most puzzling aspect of the review for me was the author's objection to the amount of detail provided in Gygax's treatment of the Keep itself - and the things Gygax opted not  to detail

The mistake I made back then, and the mistake the reviewer is making, was to assume that B2 is intended to be an "open the cover and start playing" sort of module like many of the later BECMI products were. But the truth is that's not what Gygax was doing.

What he was going for, it seems to me now that I look at B2 again and begin to prepare for an actual campaign, is demonstrate the process he had in mind when he wrote instructions in the 1e DMG for how a beginning DM should go about starting what these days we would call a sandbox campaign:

  1. Develop the outlines of a community the PCs can use as a base of operations.
  2. Place the entrance to the dungeon not too far away.
  3. Sketch out pertinent details of the surrounding area.
  4. Add some "dressing" to the community as well as the dungeon for the PCs to interact with. Include some hints as to where adventure might be found.
  5. Set up necessary random tables (wandering monsters, events, etc) or odds of variable things happening (% chance key NPCs are in the tavern)
  6. Be prepared with sketched out ideas of what happens when PCs go to certain places or interact with certain people/things.
  7. Introduce the players to the game.

From here, Gygax assumes that much of what happens will be in reaction to the players' actions - he doesn't assume the DM will have considered every eventuality, but that some things will be made up on the spot, others determined by a die roll, and most things will emerge from play. This is why Gygax was so adamant that strict timekeeping be the rule - with a strict timeline and tools to "automate"[2] things like random encounters and events such as weather the DM can concentrate on simply responding to the players. In some senses, the setting is the DM's character.

In this model the keep isn't just a save point. It's part of the game, a place where adventure can take place. Of course it needs just the kinds of details Gygax provides. It needs more as well - and in the text Gygax urges the DM to sketch floor plans of the more important buildings, and to add details such as the names of NPCs as appropriate. Gygax's instructions make it clear that he didn't expect the DM to just open the module and start - he expected the DM to take what he had already prepared (the meat of the 7 points above) and build details into it that fit the sort of game intended (the gravy).

I'll be the first to gripe about Gygax's poor sense of things in the details - in fact reading his personal gaming material I often stumble on things that are just madenningly poorly thought out. But I honestly think his grasp of the big picture really was excellent, and a lot of his advice on the strategic and processes level is spot on.

It's been about 27 years since I ran a B/X campaign, so I thought I'd put my money where my mouth is - I'll take Gygax's advice, both specifically from B2 and his more general advice on campaigning as presented in the 1e DMG, and build my campaign as suggested. As I do, I will sketch some of my progress here, perhaps a play report pr two, and we'll see if I'm right about Gygax's advice.
1. It's the review here:

2. By which I mean randomize, as opposed to the DM deciding by fiat or logical progression.

Rain in the trenches

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The last week, Tokyo has seen three typhoons - needless to say, having this many rain days in the last week of summer vacation has caused some stress.

Enter H.G. Wells!

Surely every table-top gamer has at least heard of H.G. Wells' little book Little Wars? Said to be the beginning of hobby wargaming, it's a quick read and contains the rather simple rules Wells devised to play an engaging table (or floor) game using the toy soldiers and spring-loaded cannons common at the time. With this work in mind I set out several weeks ago to figure a way to entertain a disaster zone populated entirely by rabid kobolds 5 to 7 year old children.

The result is the rules below. As mentioned, I started thinking about this a few weeks ago during another rainy day, and the rules have undergone a few evolutions - moving from truly basic to a balance that a 5 year old can handle (with suitable guidance). No doubt they require some refinement, but this week they have provided trouble-free entertainment for adults and children alike, using basically only the toys available.

Enough introduction - the rules:

A standard deck of playing cards
A standard 30cm/12 inch ruler (optional)
Some 6-sided dice (optional)

Scrap paper is useful but not necessary so long as an adult with a good memory is playing and there aren't too many troops.

The first thing to do is to go through the available toys to choose some who will be the core playing pieces - you will need one item that can hurl a missile some distance (without risk to the players of course - it's all fun and games until someone loses an eye after all), and a number of smallish figures that can serve as standard soldiers.

In my case, we happen to have a few Playmobil knights and the cannon that came with one of the sets, but of course the soldiers could be anything at all - green army men, animals, Disney princesses. The main thing is that the game seems to be more fun if your missile launcher is capable of knocking them over, so unusually stable figures are probably not a good idea.

It's nice to have more than one missile launcher, but no worries if not - we used the missile launcher as a way of remembering whose turn it was.

Divide the soldiers among the combatants - two sides is fun, but three sides or perhaps even more can be very entertaining as children have even less concept of honoring treaties than your average Diplomacy player. Still, make sure each player has several playing pieces - enough that they won't end up eliminated too long before the end of the war.

Each side then sets up his or her soldiers in a cluster some reasonable distance away - I find a couple of meters works well: much more means the game drags out before there's any engagement, too close means a rapid bloodbath that isn't much more interesting than if they'd just knocked over each others soldiers the usual way.

Finally, shuffle the cards (jokers removed is probably a good idea) and deal - we used 4 cards to a side, but we only have 8 knights in total - if you are mounting wars with large numbers you probably want more cards to avoid too much stagnation. On the other hand, too many cards means a long time waiting for your turn while the other player fiddles about. I don't think I'd go higher than 6 in any case.

It's the simplest thing in the world -

When it's your turn, look at your cards and decide what to do with them.

Each card laid down lengthwise represents a move in the direction the card is leading. Simply place the card so that it is touching the base of the figure. Older children (and adults) might also be limited to the soldier ending its move facing in that direction. (facing may become important if some of the variations described below are used)

A soldier can move any number of cards, but each successive card must touch the previous on one corner - this allows figures to be moved either in straight lines or in curves. I limited turns to 90 degrees per card. A player will need to choose between moving several figures in a turn or moving one or two quickly.

Finally, the type of card used makes a difference:

Number cards represent simple movement, but a face card or ace indicates that at the end of its move the figure can shoot the missile launcher!

Important: The one thing I found absolutely indispensable was a rule requiring the player to place cards first and only then begin moving and shooting, picking up cards as they are used up and adding them to a common discard pile. This avoids confusion over which figures will move  and when they were supposed to do, and also commits the player regardless of the outcome of shots/fights.

Shooting and fighting:
If a soldier ends its movement touching or nearly touching an enemy figure, it can fight - fights can be resolved by playing rock-paper-scissors (loser dies and is removed, ties can either be replayed until there's a winner or just mean both figures survived) or if you like you can introduce dice - each player rolls one die, the highest number wins (again, loser dies, ties can be rerolled or just mean both survived). I used dice because I have some with numerals that make for a good arithmetic drill using some of the optional variations below.

If the move was made using a face card/ace then the player can take a shot at the enemy - placing your launcher as close to your figure as possible, take aim, and fire. If you hit an enemy figure and knock it over, it is dead and is removed from the field.


The first variation I introduced was in the name of fun - let's face it, everyone just wants to shoot the missile launcher and it's frustrating if several turns pass and your luck with cards isn't good. We happen to have a few collectable cards that are the same size as our playing card deck, so we just let every player choose one - we dealt out three ordinary cards to each player for a total of four, and the collectable card was a freebie every turn.

The second variation was to allow shields - Playmobil knights sometimes come with shields, so we divided the shields equally among the players so they could be given to soldiers. The rule was simple - on the first hit, the soldier's shield was taken away but it was stood back up to continue fighting. I found this spurred some interesting tactical decisions once the kids were more familiar with the game.

The third variation was terrain features - in our case basically ordinary toy blocks divided equally and place within a reasonable distance of the starting army. These provided the interesting dimension of cover - furniture in the room became an interesting feature as well, with figures deliberately heading under tables to hide behind the legs. Our dining room table became a veritable Sherwood Forest in one game (which eventually drew the ire of a Wrathful Deity I can tell you)

The fourth variation is the most exciting - I allowed monsters!

Unique play figures such as dinosaurs or dragons and the like were chosen (one per army, or maybe two or more depending on what you have) and their special powers were discussed.


It was decided that a dragon figure was more powerful than a mere soldier, could fly, and of course could breathe fire. Mechanically, this translated into the dragon using 3d6 for attack (losing one every time it lost a fight or was hit by a missile), and when using a "power card" (as we came to call the face cards, ace, and the special collectable cards) could either move the distance of one giant step (being placed on the floor as close to the foot as possible) or could breathe fire - lay the ruler down in the direction the dragon is breathing (reasonable angle from the head) and the dragon fire hits every figure the ruler touches. Roll the dragon's dice to find out how bad it is, then every defending figure rolls their own dice and takes damage if they roll less. (for most figures, since they have only one die, this probably means certain death). The dragon of course takes no damage if they roll more.

Based on its size, the rubber scorpion was obviously tougher than the solders but not as tough as the dragon. It has two pincers, so could split its attack between two enemies if desired. And finally, it obviously has a poison sting.  Mechanically: 2d6 attack, or split it for 1d6 each against 2 foes, and if a power card is used it can STING a single opponent for 3d6.

Lego men are small, but tough and find it easy to hide in the brush. Mechanics - 1d6 as usual, but if a power card is played you have the option of shooting or hiding - a hidden halfling is invisible, and can't be fought or targetted with a missile until it moves normally or attacks. I ended up marking the figures location with little cardboard counters.

A much larger figure was deemed to be an ogre. Ogres are huge and tough, but not all that smart and likely not able to shoot - but they are strong! Mechanics: 3d6, and if it starts its turn beside a block or other reasonably sized terrain feature you can play a power card to have the ogre carry that block when it moves.

To balance out the tougher monster figures, we ruled that if multiple figures are touching an enemy, you can combine their dice for a coordinated attack - so two or three soldiers could move up and attack a dragon all at once, making for a more even chance of hurting it.

Instead of simple "kill them all and let god sort it out" battles, I started setting goals. In one case, I placed a "treasure" (a handful of plastic "crystals") and said the winner was the one who could capture it and hold it against the enemy. In another, I placed the Playmobil castle (complete with a monster guardian) and said that whoever could capture the castle by entering and defeating the monster could - so long as they kept a soldier there to work it - fire the castle ballista every turn. Finally of course I offered the standard "capture the flag" variation which given fairly limited forces and the consequences of sacrificing soldiers made for a rather interesting game.

So, this is my still-evolving version of Little Wars. What's next you ask?  Well, I want to try a couple of things:

First, I'd like to introduce a wizard figure, and perhaps a handful of spells (liberally borrowing from Chainmail, probably). I'd also like to try "campaigning" - let the treasure be something practical that can carry over to the next war, for example. We have a small number of special weapons: perhaps they could be magic weapons, and the soldier carrying one could get 2 dice and the same kind of protective effect that a shield gives? I also need to figure out a good way to use our horses - perhaps by allowing a knight to mount a horse if they're touching, and then move the length of the ruler.

There's a huge range of things that can still be tried, so many that I find I'm actually looking forward to the next rain day!