Wednesday, 1 October 2014

I'm Super! Thanks for asking. All things considered I couldn't be better I must say!

I've been nagged again, not without justification, to update this blog again.  I'd been intending to do so ever since the Big Birthday Bash some... (ack!)  two months ago.  But whenever I sat down to do so, I found myself choosing between spending a couple of hours writing about wargaming, or instead actually doing something wargame related.  For better or worse, "Do" won out over "Write" every time.

So last time we were here, preperations had just been completed for the Big Birthday Bash Hillbilly weekend.  The whole affair went off splendidly.  Crazy Eddy brought round a fresh batch of raspberry moonshine that was suitably... stimulating.  The cuisine was a mixed success - everyone said they enjoyed their barbecued squirrel and rabbit, however I found myself so busy in the kitchen doing grits and fries that by the time I came to collect my portions, there were only the toughest leathery pieces left that were barely edible. (It didn't help that I'd neglected to marinade the meat properly due to uncertainty over what day the weather would allow us to barbecue - remember kids, always marinade your squirrel and rabbit for at least a day for the best results)

As to the game - well it was chaos and mayhem, mostly in a good way.

The buildings, in answer to ImpCommander's query to the last post (sorry for the delay!) were all part of the Plasticville collections I'd acquired from eBay - although the particular farmhouse and barn buildings we used in this game may actually be K-Line.  They're O gauge/S gauge model railroad buildings and are perfect for wargaming - more on them later.

The rules we used were Flying Lead from Ganesha Games.  They generally worked well, except for some complaints that the nature of the initiative/activation system (each player attempts to activate all their figures in turn) meant that sometimes players felt they were stuck waiting for a long period for their turn to come around.

The setup for the game was simple.  Each player had one "Patriarch" figure, representing the head of their clan.  They then randomly drew cards for the rest of their figures (You can't choose your family!).  By a hilarious coincidence, Kat our one female gamer on the day picked the one Matriarch figure, then randomly drew an almost all female clan (except for Lil' Billy, the kid).  Each clan started on the table edge and had the mission to lay claim to the farm and farmland of the late lamented Widow McDonald.

Highlights of the game?  Kat deciding that since her womenfolk weren't likely to capture the farm or any stills, she may as well kidnap fallen opponents ("Lookee here, Mi Maw, I dun found me a husban'!"): Bruce, on discovering that the motorhome wasn't a Breaking Bad meth lab but a red herring, decided to steal it anyway, after capturing another player's jalopy he wound up with a three-vehicle convoy. Marvin the ARVN, whose patriarch was the first into the McDonald farmyard, coming face to face with the Devil-Goat who was the true ruler of the farm.

And then there was Crazy Eddy's bombing run with the Hillbilly Air Force.

This was the Sekrit Weppun XXXX I've been talking about on the blog for some time, a Boeing Stearman Kaydet trainer, converted for crop-spraying duties.  They were the standard US training aircraft around the end of WWI, hundreds of them were sold on to civilian owners where they helped drive civil aviation in the 20s and 30s.

The model is 1/72 scale.  Popular opinion seems to be to match 1/48 models with 28mm figures, a practice I've followed with ground vehicles and terrain (even using vehicles as large as 1/43 scale).  However, for aircraft, there are numerous advantages to using the underscaled 1/72 models.  Price is one of them - the Kaydet in 1/72 cost half what it would in 1/48.

In terms of appearance, on the ground with figures stood next to it, the 1/72 looks slightly too small, but not ridiculously so.  A 1/48 aircraft would use up a lot more space on the ground too, requiring wider and longer taxiways & runways if you want to represent them.  And personally I feel 1/48 and larger look a little too big (which mathematically they are)  On flight stands, 25cm or 50cm above the tabletop, the 1/72 looks absolutely fine, and it's easier to make the smaller aircraft stable.

For a "jokey" and somewhat cartoony game like the Hillbilly Rampage,  differences in scale are less important.  The figures mixed true 25mms from Ground Zero Games, with 28mm from Black Hat and some "Heroic" 28mms from Mega Minis.  The Plasticville buildings are notorious for being "flexibly scaled", having some doors that are too large and some too small, sometimes on the same building.  The "Jalopies" used in the game were converted from Atlantis toys, designed for 40mm high action figures (but compared to the real-world vehicles they were based on look closer to 1/35) and buried underneath a tarpaulin in the barn, the hill folk found a 1/43 Dodge Challenger.  So the whole game was a smorgasbord of scales from 1/72 to 1/35, yet because of the subject matter, everything hung together rather well.

Everyone proclaimed to have enjoyed the game, even if Marvin bitched about the Devil Goat and there was some dispute over who had won by the scenario's victory conditions (as if I was even counting!).

About a week or so later, we had the opportunity to re-run the game with some different players, for the weekly "Old Farts" group.  We had Jonesy, Bruce and Crazy Eddy back again, and were joined by Dave and Paul.  This time we changed the activation sequence to only have players activate one figure in turn before passing to the next player.  On the surface this worked OK, however the game quickly split into two subgames, one of three players, one of two, with each group of players working out their initiative amongst themselves and out of sequence to the other group.  While some might argue that this tends to happen in large multi-player games anyway, once it started I feel it became a self-fulfilling prophecy, i.e. it discouraged any players who might otherwise want to from "crossing over" and affecting the other sub-game.

This prompted a lot of deep thinking about turn sequences and activation for future games.  I've come to the conclusion that for larger multi-player games, it's hard to beat the randomised card draw from GASLIGHT (or similar mechanisms).  Ironically, it's that self-same activation sequence that I've been keen to move away from for the purposes of more "routine" games.

Anyway, to draw a line under the Big Birthday Bash, I now have an extended clan of 42+ hillbillies painted up and ready to play, along with suitable scenery and vehickles.  That's part of what running events like the BBB are about for me - in addition to spending time with friends and near-family.  It's a motivator to dig into the lead mountain and get things ready to play.  If I ever need a pickup game at short notice, the Hillbilly gear is there ready and usable for the sort of regular small-skirmish game Flying Lead was designed for.

So as mentioned previously, as part of the prep for the Hillbilly game I kinda went a bit mental on eBay and bought rather a lot of Plasticville buildings.  A couple of weeks after the BBB, Marvin and Jonesy came around one Sunday and we decided to layout everything I had to see what was what.

This was.... most of the buildings, not including those still in kit form awaiting assembly (and about five more buildings still winging their way across the Atlantic.  As you can see there's enough here to easily fill a 7ft by 6ft table, without much room for roads or open spaces.

These buildings are great for wargaming.  The scales, as mentioned before, are way off.  features on the buildings range from 1/72 to 1/48, and the ground area covered by most is much smaller than they would be in real life.  They do, however, look the part perfectly and while many of these 2nd hand buildings are glued together, I've generally been able to remove the roofs on most of them so far, allowing figures to be placed inside them.

Looking at this table full of plastic, the three of us discussed what we were going to do with them.  If you're not fussy, the buildings are usable as-is, but having painted and enhanced the buildings used in the BBB, I wanted to bring these buildings up to the same standard at least.   While the Plasticville buildings are pretty much pure 1950s Americana, I'd singled out some of the buildings as being an ideal basis for my Caribbean Imagi-Nation of Paradiso - the subject of the second ever post on this blog several years ago.  I explained the idea to the guys, and in order to get things started we decided to replicate what we'd done for the BBB - i.e. come up with a modest scenario, pick a modest subset of figures and a half a dozen or so buildings and aim to have them ready to play for a certain date.  Then lather, rinse repeat with a new set of figures/buildings.

So that's basically what we've been working on every Sunday for the past few weeks.  Hopefully in a few weeks time we'll have a three or four-way skirmish with 4-8 figures a side playable on a 3ft square table that gives a fair impression of being part of a modern city in the tropics.  While we've been making progress towards the planned scenario, I've also been doing a number of terrain mini-side-projects that will serve the setting overall, like tropical vegetation bases with palm trees and the ubiquitous aquarium plants (more of them in a future post)

In researching terrain and modelling inspiration, I have come to realise that Paradiso is an absolute fantasy.  It will bear very little similarity to any real-world Caribbean nation.  It's far too westernised, its military far too developed.  I realised that I was taking a lot of inspiration from cold-war era Latin America with its stereotypical endless coups and juntas.

And I'm OK with that.

At the end of the day Paradiso is going to serve as a setting to support the sort of games I want to play, and for that the fictionalisation is a bonus, not a disadvantage.  I'd like to play stand up battles between hard-pressed police and well armed criminal cartels.  But the savagery and atrocities of the real-world Mexican and Latin American cartels makes trying to reproduce them on the tabletop seem extremely tasteless.  Tired of counter-insurgency games pitting the USA against goat farmers in Iraq & Afghanistan?  How about pitting the slightly less well-equipped Paradiso Army against its own goat-farming rebels in the mountains?  Or a more conventional fight against Paradiso's Russian trained & equipped neighbours.

While remaining firmly grounded in the real world (at least until the Zombie Apocalypse breaks out) Paradiso is a fantasy island where I can play any real-world modern/near future type game I might want to play, from gang warfare and cops & robbers, up to platoon-level skirmishes in 28mm, and beyond into 15mm AK47 or micro-armour games, or 1/300 air-to-air battles against hostile neighbours.  The game setting bends to what I want it to be, rather than dictating what games I can play.  Which to me is how gaming should be.


There's more.

Between 2003 and 2007 I ran an epic superhero roleplaying campaign using the Mutants and Masterminds rules.  Not only was it possibly the highlight of my gaming "career", I found it also helped give my life in general an anchor point - playing host every couple of weeks meant I couldn't let the flat I was living in at the time get too messy or disorganised, it would require a certain amount of preparation and planning to exercise the mind, and it was of course simply something to look forward to.  While sat chilling out on the Sunday of the BBB, the other players were all highly nostalgic for the old game and I'd recently found myself inspired by the current glut of superhero movies and the "Arrow" TV series.  Despite the fact that two of the four potential players live several hours drive away enthusiasm for a revival was high and I decided for my own part it would be a good therapy to help keep that damn black dog at bay.

Thus it was that this weekend just past I played host to that same group and we kicked off the new campaign.  It's going to be monthly, not fortnightly, due to the travel requirements of some of the players.   We're using the Mutants & Masterminds 3rd Edition rules this time - which are in some ways streamlined and in other ways far more complex than the original.  For the setting, I gave the players the choice of three cities.  Redwood, CA in the Pacific Northwest,  Millar, PA (a Gothamesque industrial city) or Paradise City, FL (a gulf coast metropolis resembling TV Miami, where the real world Panama City, FL is located)  They picked Paradise City.... (can you guess where this is going to end up?)

Now for the last campaign I had become the master of the paper fold-up figure.  I still maintain they are in many ways better for roleplaying games than metal or plastic figures.  You can carry hundreds in a very small space, plus you can inexpensively print EXACTLY the figures you need for any given scenario, no proxying required.  However, on the Friday before we were due to play my friend and many-time benefactor Dave called round offering the loan of his collection of rebased Heroclix figures.

Now if you're not familiar with it, Heroclix is a collectible miniature game that uses an innovative dial based to keep track of figure abilities and damage.  Stripped from those clunky dials, they basically become a very inexpensive source of 28mm plastic superhero figures.  Marvel, DC and many independent superhero characters are represented and they take conversion and repainting rather well.

So on the night before the game was due to start, I couldn't sleep for all the elements swirling together in my brain.  The internal dialogue went something like this.

"Hey you know how you're working on all that wargaming terrain with Jonesy?"
"Err yes. What about it?"
"It's tropical urban stuff, isn't it?"
"Yup.  Say now you mention it, this game we're running tomorrow is going to be a tropical urban setting."
"Yeah.  I mean look at all the work you're putting into it.  Wouldn't it be good if you could use it for other things."
"Like the RPG?"
"But it's a bit overkill if we're just going to be using paper stand-up figures for it."
"Mind you, those Heroclix figures were rather nice, weren't they?"
"They were.  And I bet if we looked on Ebay or at an upcoming wargames show we could find someone selling off the cheap common figures in bulk at low prices."
"Say, didn't we use a Marvel Kingpin Heroclix figure as the basis for your Dr Vesuvius mini-me?"
"We did that.  I suppose now we're better with greenstuff and paint we could convert figures to look exactly like the PCs and NPCs, just like with the paperfigures."
"I bet we could.  Subconscious high-five!"

Which is why I woke up the morning of the game, went on eBay and found someone selling batches of Heroclix figures 50 for £18.99.  I ordered a few to get us started, then when the players had gathered, told them that I'd decided we'd be using figures for this campaign, about the £18.99 batches on eBay and suggested that their next paydays, should they have the odd £20 to spare, they might like to buy a batch of figures to contribute to the game.

Instead they literally threw money at me.

Did I mention I have awesome friends :-)

So I now have two (semi-) regular gaming threads - the monthly M&M supers game, and the now slighly fuzzier scheduled miniatures games, both of which will be able to use a lot of  the same figures, vehicles and terrain.  So any work put into one will probably be useful to the other, which is an efficiency that appeals to me greatly.

As a final coda to this... increasingly epic blog post... I read up on the history of Panama City, Florida where my fictional Paradise City lies.  Panama City got its name because it was a popular port for sea traffic to the other Panama City, around the time that the eponymous canal was being built.  One can only assume then that Paradise City got its name similarly from its transport links with a certain Caribbean island nation.

Coming soon - more frequent (I promise) posts about the progress of the Paradiso project, the terrain the figures etc. and some more thoughts on the background of the setting and its inspirations.