Blood Angels Space Marines Miniature painting Miniatures Painting tools Warhammer 40k WIP it good

WIP it good: painting Sergeant Karios

This past weekend I worked in a bit of painting time. Somehow painting my first Blood Angels model feels more like the official start of my army than any of the preceding steps — buying, assembling, priming, and basing.

Audiobook as painting soundtrack

I’m listening to the audiobook of Guy Haley’s Dante (paid link), narrated by Gareth Armstrong, while I paint; so far I’m loving it.

I’ve never listened to an audiobook before, and it’s fascinating to me that three things are happening simultaneously while it’s on: I’m enjoying the book (Armstrong is a great narrator); it’s keeping me company while I paint, much like background music would; and neither book nor painting is distracting me from the other to the degree than I can’t comprehend the book or focus on my painting.

In fact, on that last front, paying attention to the book is actually helping me get into the Zen-like, relaxed-but-focused state in which I like to paint.

Fetch the Emperor’s bucket of Mephiston Red

As ever, Sergeant Karios is first into the breach.

For the Emperor and Sanguinius!

Compared to painting my Space Hulk Terminators, which had a fairly thick, years-old coat of spray primer and a poorly applied, and equally thick, base coat of red covering most of each model, this is night and day. Karios has my worst coat of brush-on primer, as he was first and I was still getting the hang of it, but it’s so nice and thin compared to the Terminators — and thinning my paints, using a proper fine brush, and focusing on the details are also smoothing the road.

Slow and steady: red done, magenta done, starting on gold

There’s also a definite quality difference between the cheap ZEM brush I’ve been trying out for base-coating and my better Citadel and Army Painter brushes. The curled tip on my ZEM brush is going to stay curled, so it’s been relegated to “open areas and spots where I need to poke between things” duty, leaving my better brushes for actual detail work.

Base edge color test

Along the way I took a poke at a Marine’s base with Mechanicus Standard Grey, and while not bad it’s too dark and too tonally close to the terrain color. Fortunately I’ve got more gray on hand now, and I have a hunch Danwstone will be perfect.

Sergeant Karios, fully base-coated

And on Sunday night, just as the light outside starting becoming too dim for detail work, I finished base-coating my first Blood Angel! Sergeant Karios still needs a full touch-up pass before his wash — but shit, that feels good.

Tabletop RPGs

Twilight: 2000 and its amazing hook

There are a lot of things to love about Twilight: 2000, but one of my favorites is its hook (one of the best hooks in RPG history): The PCs, all soldiers, are stuck in the middle of Poland after five years of global war, including exchanges of nuclear and biological weapons, and then, “As division headquarters was being overrun, the CO’s last radio message was, ‘You’re on your own. Good luck.’

From character creation (random stats balanced by time spent in combat) to coolness under fire, random encounters, and a deadly combat system that makes every firefight something to be wary of, the rules are delightfully old-school and spartan in their presentation. Combat is detailed, but my memory of playing T2K 15-20 years ago is that one firefight cements most of the basic rules nicely.

I want to run T2K as an alternate history sandbox, exactly as presented: In its version of reality, 17 years ago looks like 1984’s take on what was then the future. “You’re on your own. Good luck.“

Tabletop RPGs Traveller

Space Pirates of Drinax: a gorgeous Traveller sandbox

Space pirates!

I buy 99% of my RPGs only in PDF these days, but when a product as special as the Pirates of Drinax (paid link) (PDF)campaign for Mongoose Traveller (paid link) comes along, my heart goes pitter-patter and I have to make an exception.

It’s a sandbox campaign with a fantastic hook: The ruler of once-great Drinax, now a stellar backwater between two great powers, gives the PCs an old ship and a letter of marque, and asks that they secure the allegiance of the nearby worlds.

But, you know, they’re motherfucking space pirates: They can do whatever the hell they want, and the campaign supports it. There’s a neat system for tracking (and changing) how every important planet feels about the PCs, with real consequences waiting in the wings.

Need a bit more structure? The core is 10 adventures that can be run more or less in any order, anywhere. Some are opportunities signalled by rumors, while others are driven by outside forces. All adjustable to your game, of course, with copious notes about how to do just that.

Plus all the great tools I expect in an old school space sandbox: NPCs with motivations and roleplaying tips, ships, planets, deck plans, a gorgeous poster map, tons of info about the Aslan (who are key players in the region) and more. Its roughly 600 pages of material.

From what I’ve read so far, this is a stellar campaign.

Tabletop RPGs Traveller

Mongoose Traveller system and sector generator

neuzd offers a dandy Traveller system generator for 1st edition Mongoose Traveller, and it’s free.

What makes it so dandy? For starters, it’s dead simple: click link, get system. The abbreviations for bases and trade codes appear on every output screen (you’ll have to reference the rules, or the web, for the UWP and other codes).

It also hits all my high notes for a random generator: just the right amount of inspiration, quirky without going too far off the rails, and never boring. As an example, here’s the first system I generated while writing this post:

The Bbj Iisog System

“Bbj Iisog” is a great name, weird and not at all one I’d have thought up on my own. There’s a scout base here, and the trade codes signify garden, high population, industrial, and low tech.

Unpacking the UWP stats, there’s a rundown starport on a medium-size wet world with a tainted atmosphere. That world has a high population (1-10 billion) and is governed by a charismatic dictator; the law level is moderate. Its tech level of 4 puts it at the level of atomic science and internal combustion engines.

So, a garden world — that has a tainted atmosphere — with a huge population, one shitty starbase, a dictator, and not much in the way of advanced technology. My brain goes straight to an atmosphere that has a low-level soporific effect on the population, keeping them alert enough to work but docile enough not to rebel — which is handy for the planetary dictator, since there are a lot of people to control. That same atmosphere is what makes this world so fertile: They grow stuff here that can’t be grown anywhere else, and in abundance.

What will the PCs do when they arrive? If they’re in bad shape, they might be stuck for a little while (not much in the way of services at that starport). The planet is ripe for a revolution, but how do you foment one when the very air fights against you? (Sure, everyone has filters, but they probably don’t work all the time — and I bet the dictatorship has a hand in that.) It’s also ripe for stealing some of the weird plants they grow, or running tests to try to find a way to synthesize their growing conditions elsewhere — or a host of other possibilities.

Sectors and sub-sectors, too

But wait, there’s more! This generator also does sub-sectors and sectors, and you can toggle settings for population density and sector location. And on top of that, it can also just spit out name lists for you to use as needed.

Want a ton of systems all at once, with hexes (ready for you to hand-populate your game map)? This generator delivers. And again, I love the names — here are a few from a sample system I generated:

  • VHS-592
  • Garcia’s Field
  • Silva’s Dead
  • Concentrate XCVIII
  • Activity Glamorous
  • Chdydmbahk

Maybe “Activity Glamorous” doesn’t work for your game, and that’s cool: Just hit the link again, and it’ll generate a whole new sector.

The only thing I wish it did was produce a permanent URL for whatever you generate, but for such an otherwise robust (and free) tool that’s more of a quibble than a complaint. This generator is excellent.

Pair the neuzd Traveller system and sector generator with a character generator (like Frank Filz’s generator, or Devil Ghost’s generator[1]), and you’ve reduced the handling time needed to make stuff in Traveller — without reducing the fun factor.

[1] I like these both so much that I wrote Yore posts about them: Filz, Ghost

Story games Tabletop RPGs

Playtesting Elysium Flare: what drew me to this game

My online group just wrapped up our second playtesting session of Brad J. Murray‘s upcoming space-fantasy RPG Elysium Flare, and I wanted to talk a little bit about it. The current public playtest draft is v4, available for free on Brad’s Patreon.


For context: Our sessions are short, and we’re talkative; so far, we’ve made three characters, their ship, and the association (organization) to which they belong. I’m the GM.

System-wise, Elysium Flare is Fate-based, but lighter than both Fate Core and FAE (and much lighter than, say, Fate 3.0). It also adds new elements, and so far the ones we’ve had contact with look like subtle changes but are actually quite impactful. More on that in a moment.

What’s awesome about Elysium Flare?

The setting is what drew me to the game, and I think it’s what hooked the other two players in my group as well. Broadly, it’s space-fantasy: there are starships, alien species, mystical arts, and psychic powers, and no one worries too much about why things work the way they do. On the soft/hard SF spectrum, it’s extremely soft.

But it’s the little things that make it sing.

Delightful species

For starters, this is a game where the playable species are sentient gas, robot, bear-person, bug, starfish, “grey,” and plain ol’ human. I waged a fierce internal battle between playing a gas (Orpheani) or a bear (Aukami), and wound up playing a starfish (Aarun) because they’re amazing too.

Physics galore

Into that mix, add one of the game’s tweaks to Fate: three kinds of physics. In addition to the physics we’re used to, faith and arcana operate as a separate set of physics (mystical), and psychic powers under a third (psychic); these also map to stress tracks, so for example robots (fabs) are solidly grounded in the natural, and have no tracks for psychic and mystical — they’re vulnerable to those types of physics. That looks like a little thing at first, but it turns out to be a really fantastic piece of game tech.

That allows for tremendous variety in characters, skills, stunts, ships, and throughout the setting. For example, our trio (the GM makes a character too, as a handy NPC and to facilitate Fate’s interconnected PC backstories) flies around in The Shrine, a literal ship-temple that once belonged to a fallen species; its engines are some sort of mystical power source, but the guns we bolted on run on natural physics.

Working for the man

The same is true of associations, the larger organizations to which the PCs are assumed to belong. By the point when these enter into the character creation process, my group had already settled on being scruffy space scoundrels operating alone; it felt dissonant to map that to a broader association. But after we created our ship, we revisited the idea and neatly slotted ourselves into an association of greedy antiquarians who needed a plausibly deniable “black ops” arm for acquiring artifacts.

That was in no way what we expected we’d be doing when we first sat down to make characters, and Elysium Flare is brilliant at facilitating those kinds of surprises. The way associations work is part of that: From a list of terms like criminal, military, commercial, and ancient, you choose three — any three. One is your remit, which has a complication aspect associated with it, and is also a skill; the other two are skills.

We chose academic for our remit: the greedy antiquarians. For skills, we picked criminal (we’re the shady arm, after all) and administrative, because — another surprise — we wound up creating white-collar space criminals, the sort more likely to roll up with forged codes that claim we already own the thing we’re there to steal. (We’re not Indy, we’re Belloq.)

One surprise after another

Elysium Flare is freewheeling in its approach (and charmingly conversational in its tone), and that carries through to every step of character creation. We made three wildly different nutjob characters, and somehow wedded them to one another, then to a ship, then to a purpose, then to an organization — and nowhere along the way could we have predicted where they’d wind up. I love that!

Before the next session I’ll use the system creation rules to gin up a star system, and for in-character play I’ll just poke their association’s complication and start in media res, with the crew of The Shrine rolling up on a world where there’s something they want to steal. I can’t wait.

There are some rough edges in the rules, as I expect from a game currently undergoing playtesting — but I’ve watched Brad iterate through several drafts now, and every time things get smoother.

If Elysium Flare piques your interest, check out the v4 playtest draft and see what you think of the game.

Tabletop RPGs Traveller

A new appreciation for the 1977 version of Traveller

Earlier this month, at Go Play Northwest, I played a game of Traveller Carcosa run by Alex Mayo that really made me want to play more Traveller. It also reminded me to prod my long-simmering, largely unrequited interest in Traveller and see if Mongoose Traveller was still my favorite iteration.

I then bumped into this post by Alex Schroeder about the nuances of sector generation in Classic Traveller (from The Traveller Book) and Mongoose Traveller (paid link) 1e, and that led me down a rabbit warren of Classic Traveller exploration.

What I learned was that there is at least as much meaningful variation in the nuances, presentation, expression, and philosophy of different versions of the Classic Traveller rules as there is in versions of old-school D&D.[1] I had no idea!

I love exploring this kind of stuff (and I’ve written about a bit of it myself; for example, my posts about B/X D&D), and just as it did with D&D, delving deeply into the seemingly innocuous variations in Traveller has led me to the realization that it’s the very first presentation, the 1977 versions of Books 1-3 that interests me the most, supplemented by The Traveller Book for specific areas (like its tidy summary of the encounter rolls that form the basic structure of a campaign).

Interestingly, the only source for the 1977 version of Traveller that I’m aware of also happens to be one of the best deals in gaming: the Classic Traveller CD-ROM from Far Future Entertainment, which also includes the entire CT canon for just $35. Apart from that lone source, the later revisions of the original rules, notably the 1983 Traveller Book, have “taken over” and supplanted the 1977 version. The FFE CD, though, includes the original 1977 booklets, the 1981 revision, and The Traveller Book.

Classic Traveller love

Here are some of the branches in that rabbit warren, all great reads:

Collectively, all of the above gave me a newfound appreciation for the original 1977 iteration of Traveller, as well as for the many parallels between Traveller Books 1-3 and OD&D’s original three LBBs, which embody a similar freewheeling, DIY, make-your-own-fun ethos.

When I — eventually! — get to run Classic Traveller, it’ll be with the 1977 rules (Books 1-3), The Traveller Book for some handy clarifications, and possibly, though only possibly, Supplement 4: Citizens of the Imperium for alternate careers (but minus the Imperium stuff).

[1] And that’s not even considering all of the other full-on different editions, like MegaTraveller and whatnot.

Books Tabletop RPGs Traveller

Traveller’s literary sources

Thanks to the inimitable Alex Schroeder, I followed a link to this excellent 2005 essay by Michael Andre-Driussi: Deciphering the Text Foundations of Traveller.

Here’s Driussi’s thesis:

The creators of CT wanted the anarchic, amoral, and violent adventure of fantasy role playing translated into a science fiction setting. They also wanted a kind of science fiction that used more “hard SF” than even Niven’s work. They categorically rejected New Wave SF, which made them allied to the Old Wave, except that GDW wanted a gritty, noir setting (where the Old Wave is characterized as upbeat and moral).

Traveller as noir is something I’d never considered, but it makes perfect sense. There’s a lot more to unpack, even in just that excerpt — the whole essay is a damned fine read.

Here’s another concise snippet:

What the creators of CT were after was science fiction adventure, featuring freelance “adventurers” (with all the connotations of gold hunters, mercenaries, and trail blazers that this term implies) who could live or die in the course of pick-up games.

One of the sources Driussi cites is the Dumarest Saga, by E.C. Tubb (which I’d never heard of, but boy does it sound like it’d fit right into Appendix N). Here’s the skinny:

E. C. Tubb’s Dumarest of Terra series (1967 onward) portrays its titular hero as a far future Odysseus trying to find his way home across a galaxy that has forgotten Earth completely. Each novel is slim and action-packed: Earl Dumarest arrives penniless at a new planet where he must use his wits and his reflexes, not only to survive but also to make enough money for passage to the next planet. From this series, already 17 books long in 1977, CT got such details as: low passage (a deadly hibernation system); mesh armor; the drugs fast, slow, medical slow, and combat (i.e., two-thirds of the drugs in CT); the weapon “blade”” and perhaps the psionics.

I could quote this puppy all day. It’s so good!

Driussi’s essay gave me a new perspective on, and a deeper understanding of, Classic Traveller. It’s fascinating to see what shaped the nature and quirks of Traveller’s premise and presentation.

Tabletop RPGs Traveller

Frank Filz’s excellent Classic Traveller character generator

After I posted about Devil Ghost’s character generator for Classic Traveller, Frank Filz mentioned that he hosts the same generator on his site — and that he’s made it user-configurable. I tried it out, and it rocks.

To get a character, just open the generator page. For a new one, just refresh the page. Easy peasy (just like the Devil Ghost generator).

By default, this generator shows quite a bit of detail. Here’s a partial screenshot of Brom Tanaka, a 7-term general I rolled up:

But you can also tweak the generator in a variety of ways by altering the URL, and Frank explains all of the settings on his site. Want to see the die rolls? Toggle the “verbose” setting. Want less history, just the results? You can change that. Need a Navy character? Specify the service branch in the URL.

If I needed a character fast, with minimal output — just the facts, ma’am — I’d go the Devil Ghost route. If I needed more control, or wanted to see the details of how my character got where they landed, I’d hit up Frank’s version. Two great flavors to enjoy!

Tabletop RPGs Traveller

A spiffy online Classic Traveller character generator

This Classic Traveller character generator on Devil Ghost is a hoot. The visuals are a perfect match for Traveller, and it couldn’t be easier to use: just refresh to get a new character.[1]

Here’s my favorite character I’ve rolled up so far:

Just look at this dude: he spent five terms — 20 years — in the military, working his way steadily up to the rank of colonel, and has the mustering-out benefits of someone who was a very successful soldier. But what interests me most is one skill in particular: Dagger-3.

Dagger-1 is a professional knife fighter, or equivalent. Like if there’s a job that involves knifey stuff, you can get hired to do that job with Dagger-1.

Dagger-2 is an elite knife fighter. This is someone with special skills, who stands out even among skilled knife fighters.

But Dagger-3? Dagger-3 is a fucking ninja assassin. And in his 20 years in the service, that must be what Colonel Wang spent the most time doing.

Why? What kinds of missions did he undertake? How did they shape him as a person? Who is he today, mustering out at 38 with the means to travel the galaxy?

I had some ideas the moment I scanned his character sheet, and I bet you did too. That’s why I love Classic Traveller‘s minimalist characters and delightfully random character creation.

[1] I do wish there was a permalink for each character, but I don’t know enough about programming to know if that might be difficult to produce.

GURPS Tabletop RPGs

GURPS Time Travel’s four mini-settings

The more of GURPS Time Travel (paid link) I read, the more I love this book. Pound for pound, it’s one of the best gaming books I’ve read, GURPS or otherwise.

Leaving aside the “idea nuggets” scattered throughout, Time Travel offers up six settings. Time Corps is brilliant, and does more in 13 pages than most setting books do in hundreds. Infinite Worlds is the other setting which gets a longer treatment (and which later got blown out into its own book, GURPS Infinite Worlds (paid link), which I haven’t read yet).

But there are also four mini-settings, which collectively take up just 16 pages. These sounded neat, but I figured the real money was in the two more complete settings. Not so! These mini-settings are fantastic in their own right.

In the Cube

The first mini-setting is a short one, just 3 pages, and casts the PCs as lost time-travelers jumping randomly throughout history. They’ve got a support team back home, in the present; their time machine, the Hypercube, is also in the present.

The PCs can contact the scientists at home[1], although it’s not a quick or automatic process because the Hypercube isn’t a stable, smoothly-operating machine — it’s kind of a mess. The home-timers can also send the PCs stuff.

This tight little setup is a big, shiny hook for a rollicking time-romp. The PCs are yanked into another time — whatever sounds fun, perhaps a historical tipping point or the middle of a raging battle — and have to make their own way until the scientists can establish contact and give them support.

It’s very Quantum Leap, but there’s also some Star Trek: Voyager in the mix — because of course the PCs would eventually like to return home.

Eternity’s Rangers

The opposite is true of Eternity’s Rangers: The PCs can’t return home, because in their home time, they’re all dead. This mini-setting gets a whopping 8 pages, and it’s my favorite of the bunch.

Eternity’s Rangers, as the name suggests, is a military campaign. The Recruiters, a mysterious group with access to time travel, controls the Rangers, a military unit composed of soldiers from all along Earth’s timeline. Each ranger was snatched from the moment of their death and offered a choice:

I died in the Ardennes, during what you call the Battle of the Bulge. Ran into an enemy patrol in the middle of the night. There was fire; too much fire. Then a voice said, “If you want to come out of this alive, friend, take three steps to the left.”

The Recruiters send the Rangers on missions throughout time, always with specific objectives: “Turn the tide of this battle in favor of the Visigoths; everyone gets an assault rifle and 10 magazines,” or “Rescue this prisoner, but don’t reveal that you’re time travelers.” And if someone does cotton to your unnatural origins? They’re probably going to have to die, because the Recruiters are ruthless about obedience to their orders.

I could go on and on about this setting (it’s so damned good!), but instead I’ll share just one more favorite element: the pickup. Every mission comes with a pickup time and location, and if you’re not there, you’re stuck forever . . . unless you’re important enough to merit a follow-up rescue mission, of course!

The Order of the Hourglass

This mini-setting is Roaring Twenties pulp adventure + psychic time travel + time-hopping adventurers opposed by shadowy secret societies. Think League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (paid link), but with time travel.

By default, the PCs use time travel to study or explore the past — but their enemies use it for evil. Unscrupulous time travelers set up bases in the past, altering history for their own ends. Some have figured out that committing murder in the past leaves no loose ends, and have no compunctions about killing those who oppose them — like the PCs.

It’s a simple concept, but a rich one. There’s no vast temporal conspiracy, just ragtag time-explorers getting into trouble, often at the hands of a diverse bunch of enemies. There’s a ton of room to maneuver, which is one of the things I like about this setting.

The Horatio Club

Imagine if the Diogenes Club were actually a pan-dimensional cross-time nexus frequented by all manner of strange people, and you have the Horatio Club.

No one arrives there by accident, and the club’s many doors lead to myriad universes which, generally, feature entertaining problems that need to be solved. It’s a bit heavy-handed for my tastes, but the bones are intriguing — and like In the Cube, it’s a marvelous excuse to romp through time and space without worrying overmuch about the consequences.

This book just keeps on delivering

I’m on to the Infinite Worlds portion of GURPS Time Travel (paid link) next, and a bit further on down the line I’ll be checking out the much longer standalone IW book. Based on the strength of the five Time Travel settings I’ve read, I’m excited to see what that one’s like, as well!

[1] The book also suggests another option: Everyone plays two characters, a time-wanderer and a scientist in the present.