Archive for Gaming

A Brief Review of Star Wars: Shatterpoint

This is cross-posted from a post I made over on reddit/r/shatterpoint. I was lucky enough to get early access to this board game, and wanted to share my thoughts with others.

First my history with miniatures games – I got seriously into 3D printing for tabletop games 8 years ago, which led me from my core hobby of RPGs into war gaming. I’ve since played many games of everything rom Warhammer to Warcry to Frostgrave and Stargrave and many other games in-between including Malifaux. And of course, I’m a life-long Star Wars fan. I’ve played large amounts of X-Wing and Assault, but never did get into Legion. I’ve played a couple of games of Marvel Crisis Protocol, but not enough to be an expert and make strong comparisons. I’m also not a huge Marvel fan, so I didn’t like it as much as I like this.

My FLGS owner asked me to assemble and paint their core box, and starting last Tuesday, I put all my spare time into putting it together. Assembly was very easy (especially compared to some of the smaller Malifaux models) except for the very finicky Battle Droids. Painting, however, was easy all around. I mostly use speed and contrast paints and aim for table ready at best. I wanted to get these all painted on the table as quickly as I could for demo games.

I finished painting up Thursday and sat down for my first few games that night. I have played twice using the standard compliment of Separatists/Dark Side and once as the Galactic Republic/Light Side folks. I’ve lost two games, and won one (as the good guys). Since my games, others have used our store demo copy to play, and we’re currently sitting at about 50/50 wins from the two core box teams. I don’t think we’ve tried squad building at all yet, but there are a lot of plans for such when the official release arrives.

Our first game took about 3 hours, with a lot of paging back and forth in the rules. We definitely got a few things wrong. If I have a single major criticism of the game, it is that the rule book doesn’t seem to have a good organizational structure for reference while learning/playing those first games. There are a lot of tiny little edge case rules (some that you find in Asoka speech bubbles) that are easily missable. After our first couple of games, some of us spent more time at home reading the rules and identifying what we did wrong. The next batch of games went more smoothly. Our biggest mistake was allowing double-attacks or double-moves. It made things like focus and hunker actions less used, but later games actually implementing the action economy made much more use of these actions. Not the game’s fault, but ours. Even playing it wrong, we had an absolute blast.

I’ll start with my praise; I’ve read that the designers were aiming for a Saturday morning cartoon vibe with this, and I would say that they have hit it out of the park there. The struggle tracker results in this great “back and forth” feeling and movement and number of figures vs active objectives makes it feel like there’s always something that you can do to turn the tide, even if it might be a bit of a gamble.

Thanks to the combat trees on the stance cards, the ability to put characters in reserve when drawing from your deck, and more, everything in this game seems to be about giving you a rich variety of tactical choices in the moment (also reinforced by the design of the one mission in the core box). Does it make more sense here to lay on thick damage and try to wound your opponent vying for that objective marker, or should you load them up on statuses and shove them around? Does it make sense to use these force points and abilities now, or will you need them later? I feel like in some games, I make choices, but there are fewer meaningful ones.

I loved my choices I got to make here. The decision space is rich, and I can only imagine that will improve with yet more figures and missions being released in the future.

In our games, which settled into about an hour and a half to two hours after the first one, we only ever had one character (Bo Katan) removed from the table entirely. I very much like this, actually, as it kept the tactical environment complex and it always feels kind of crappy to lose figures in a squad game like this. I imagine if it ever made sense to focus on eliminating a figure, we would have, and wounding them certainly is a good tactic due to the momentum tokens you earn, we didn’t find a strong incentive to drive characters off the board over capturing points (at least so far). This also lends to that “cartoon” vibe.

The other thing I absolutely love about this game is the way the struggle tracker works. Earning momentum when you wound opponents makes combat feel consequential and important. And the catch up mechanic of earning momentum on your side if you fail to bring the transparent cube back to your side after scoring makes it feel like there’s always a chance things might swing back in your favor. This feels, for lack of a better term, very “Star Wars.”

I’m fairly critical of games I play, and I do have some minor complaints about the game, but not as many as I would have expected. Like I mentioned before, I think the rule book does a poor job of condensing things for easy reference during play. This will be solved and has been already on the Facebook group with some cheat sheets that make it easier to reference token and symbol definitions all in one place. I have some quibbles with icon design – I find it easy to confuse the shove and the dash icon with my aging eyes so I have to double-check myself for those.

But really, not much else at this point. I cannot wait to get more characters on the table. I can’t wait to see what squad building brings to the game, and I look forward to exploring all the cool new decisions the game gives me in the future. The designers of this seem to really get Star Wars in a way I agree with. Character mechanics design felt very thematic, from Rex’s hunker powers and Ashoka’s fighting styles, to how Lord Maul seems built to destroy people and die quickly like a beautiful firework. And Anakin – Anakin is a beast. When Anakin comes running at you, you feel exactly like a Battle Droid would at that sight. Oh no…

I think for me at least, the future for Shatterpoint is bright. I am even more excited for the game now that I’ve played it. I wanted to share my experiences for those of you who haven’t had a chance yet, and start a discussion of the overall experience for others.


a man that is standing in the dark


RPGs are the Cheapest Form of Gaming Entertainment

I was annoyed earlier today about yet another board game that aims to recreate the tabletop RPG experience without being an RPG, and I didn’t understand why people want a watered down RPG experience when they can get the real thing just as easily (possibly easier, financially, as I’ll explain in a bit). I complained about this to some gamer friends on Discord, and they pointed out a blind spot for me.

As one person said, “don’t discount your experience.” They outlined the following points that were well taken.

  • You need DM who is willing to run games.
  • You need to have the time to run a full 3-4 hour session (shorter games are possible but this is the sweet spot in my experience)
  • You need friends near you to pull together a group.
    • They need to have the time for 3-4 hour sessions.
  • Not everyone has the experience to just pick up and play RPGs some people find the whole idea intimidating. I’ve been playing almost 40 years. It’s easy for me. Not everyone.

I had forgotten rule #2, which is “I am not the target audience for all things.” I forget what Rule #1 is, probably don’t talk about fight club.

I went on to argue that, despite these things, penny for hours spent, RPGs are about the cheapest form of entertainment. I can run an RPG with a pencil, a few sheets of paper, and dice. Sure, you might want some books too if you want to get all rules-y, but the basics are things that a lot of people already have. They may not have polyhedral dice, but I guarantee they have a copy of fucking Monopoly knocking around in a closet somewhere. You and most everyone has the basic materials needed to run an RPG in their home.

They just don’t know how to get started, and the opportunity costs can be high, as said above.

I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that Gen Z and Millenials have caused an explosion of popularity for RPGs, given this economic advantage. Video games are great, but AAA titles cost $60 to $70 now, and you’ll run out of material in, what, a month at most? If you buy three core D&D rule books for around $100, that gives you the materials you need for about, and I’m roughly estimating here, 45 years of entertainment. Provided you can satisfy the requirements above.

Enjoy your board game RPGs, though. I am not here to tell anyone how to have fun. Me, I think I’ll stick with the full RPG experience most of the time, but I’m now much more aware of my grognard privilege.


green and black dice on brown wooden table


Marvel Crisis Protocol

I had the pleasure of getting to play a game of Marvel Crisis Protocol the other day. This is a miniatures skirmish game set in the Marvel universe. Each player controls 4-6 heroes or villains and pull scenarios from a deck of cards that set the way to gain points. You play up to six rounds of back-and-forth, taking objectives and beating the snot out of each other.

At one point, I used MODOK to telekinetically throw a dumpster at Doc Oc.

I could probably end my blog post there, and you know based on just that sentence if this game is right for you. From my single play experience, I would say it captures the fun of superhero fights from comic books. It’s a nice medium complexity, more crunchy with rules than, say, Frostgrave or other Osprey titles. But not quite as complicated as Malifaux. A tad bit more rich than something like Warcry or Killteam.

The characters do have a lot of options and mechanics and powers on them, so if you dive right in with five characters like I did, take 10 minutes to read them carefully. The person who was teaching me helped keep it all straight, but there were several tactical blunders I made by not reading the characters’ abilities closely enough. For instance, I treated MODOK as a weakling when he was actually a big ol whirling dervish of death, which I realized only too late.

I don’t think it’s one that I would pick up and purchase myself. For one, I have zero interest in painting anything “comic book accurate.” That’s just not my style. I’m more intrigued by the Star Wars Shatterpoint game that they’re launching this summer that plays very similiarly, although I have the same problem. I like being able to paint my minis however the fancy strikes me, and these games feel like they really want you to paint the minis in a “true to media” fashion.

And yes, it has passed my mind more than once that my fascination with miniatures games in my forties is a bit childish. In fact, it’s been grating on me for a while now how many of my hobbies could be said to be “for kids.” I’ve got another blog post ruminating on this and what it means for me.


lego minifig on green grass during daytime


Kobold Press’s Deep Magic 2 Launch

I’m cheating today because work has taken over my life and I like to support my clients.

Kobold Press is a 3rd party RPG publisher (soon to be 1st party with Project Black Flag!). They just launched a new Kickstarter for their book Deep Magic 2. Here’s how they describe it:

Deep Magic Volume 2 is the next installment in Kobold Press’s popular series, presenting potent new options for game masters and players with a penchant for enchantment. . . . And fully compatible with the evolution of the world’s first tabletop RPG!

The great thing about this Kickstarter is that the book will be forward-compatible with the forthcoming Project Black Flag from Kobold Press, so you will be able to play it with an all new system and skip on supporting the world’s first tabletop RPG that shall remain nameless. I hear Project Black Flag will be truly open and have no digital monthly subscription fee.

If you’re semi-illiterate before 10 AM like me, you can watch a video instead!

The team at Kobold Press works really hard on each one of these releases. I’m not involved on the creative side, but I also work hard to help with their websites, so I’m not a neutral third party here. If you support Kobold Press, you support me. So go do that, friends.


Books, Gaming

Frostgrave Battle Report: The Eclipse

The sudden eclipse was on none of the wizard’s astrological charts. It’s arrival was most unexpected, but not unwelcome.

Eclipses are well-known to be associated with powerful magical surges, and while the wizards who had made camp near the tiny settlement of Hommel were not prepared for it, they quickly flew into action. Mugwump led his band of mushroom folk from the tavern straight into the nearest ruins which were already glittering with newly revealed treasures, perhaps reawakened by the celestial show now unfolding. The Summoner, Dawnbreaker Sweeney, raced out of his library lair with his retinue in tow, ever-eager to capture new treasures and secrets. The newly arrived kobold band led by the wizard Brond interrupted their revelries in the Forest of Hands to also make pursuit. The icy ground began to crackle with arcane energies as the sky grew darker.

With the moon devouring the sun overhead, lines of sight and distances were muddled, even as the wizard’s magics became more powerful. The fungal bear known locally as “Cocaine Bear” made swiftly for the Summoner’s men, taking many arrows into its flanks without effect. A great effort by Sweeney’s thugs were finally able to beat it into submission, all while Mugwump and his apprentice led the others through the village and into the nearest ruined tower.

The Summoner’s troops made headway the quickest, cutting a straight forward path into two ruined houses and quickly located fresh treasures, but were soon bogged down by the arrival of kobolds and mushroom folks hoping to make the steal.

Sweeney himself climbed atop the Hand throne for a better view of the scene, but XXXX spotted him and used a clever push spell to launch him dozens of feet into the air. The Summoner did not recover during the course of the battle, and sadly was not conscious to witness the full eclipse.

So too did Brond fall in battle before the Eclipse had reached it’s zenith, and the only wizard who was left conscious to take notes on the arcane situation was Mugwump, the strangle little mushroom man of unknown origin. He utilized the surge of magical energies to target a thief carrying a treasure across a bridge and catapult him far into an icy river with another use of the Push spell. The treasure Sweeney’s thief carried was lost to the rapid waters, along with the thief.

Unfortunately for him, Mugwump soon fell to the warping of energies of his own failed spellcasting, and a few moments later, in the chaos of battle, Floop, his apprentice, was obliterated by an attack of uncertain provinance. The apprentice was not rescued in the aftermath, and Mugwump will be forced to grow a new one from fresh spores and other ingredients taken from his private stores.

Among other notable events, this scribe is told that Sweeney’s apprentice poured much of his blood into a summoning ritual and brought a major demon onto the field which quickly began to stalk the others. The mushroomfolk’s archers, now able to see better as the eclipse waned, were able to harry it with arrows. It made its way straight for the scrum of kobolds and Summoner’s troops that were skirmishing violently over a single treasure.

As the magical levels returned to normal, the fight seemed to leave the wizards, and a truce was struck to avoid further losses that day. The wizards and their bands made off with the treasure they had already secured: Brond captured one, Mugwump captured two, and Sweeney captured two. One was lost to the bottom of the river, although perhaps some day it will resurface.

There is an uneasiness in the air now amongst the wizards and mercenaries of this region. There are whispers that this eclipse was a herald of something terrible, something that has now awakened and schemes out there in the frozen city. Wizards that have recently departed on expeditions have failed to return. There are also rumors that a new batch of cultists have been spotted making their way through the city, but to what purpose, no one knows. The only thing that is certain in Frostgrave is that things will remain uncertain and ever-changing.

What is this? Each week, I meet with other nerds to play games of the miniatures-agnostic skirmish game, Frostgrave. It’s a cross between an RPG and a miniatures game, with leveling up wizards who learn new spells and gain new treasures. It’s a lot of fun and gives me an opportunity to play in addition to all the RPGs I run for others.

Notes for this session: scenario 50 xp was gained only by Mugwump for being alive in turn 5. We tried a different method of deployment, seeking a way to better balance three players, and all deployed from parts of one end of the board and raced towards the other half where all the treasure was deployed. This resulted in a bit of a bloodbath, but it was a lot of fun. This was the first scenario of the Thaw of the Lich Lord.


Raising the Black Flag

It’s been a busy day for my clients, and thus it was a very busy day for me. I nearly forgot to write a post, but luckily I can talk about part of the reasons it has been so busy.

All of this activity appears to be at least partially in response to the WotC OGL 1.1 snafu and leak. It’s an absolutely terrible agreement and Wizards of the Coast has misstepped badly with this, it seems. Matt Coville of MCDM has also announced their plans to develop their own system. Just about the only major players we’re still waiting to hear from are Darrington Press (Critical Role folks) and Paizo (Pathfinder folks). I expect we’ll hear something very soon on those fronts.

I expect a Cambrian Explosion of sorts for new fantasy RPG systems, and frankly, I am here for it. Not all of these new creations being announced with succeed, and to some degree, I hope there’s early consolidation of efforts, but I think if we as a community could come together under one flag and create a genuinely open game system, it will benefit us all and provide many people careers and a healthy living despite the best attempts by certain nefarious magic users to eliminate the competition.



What is Frostgrave, Anyway?

I’ve been talking a lot about Frostgrave in my posts, but I haven’t really done any work to explain what that is. Time to fix that!

Frostgrave: Fantasy Wargames in the Frozen City by Joseph A. McCullough

Frostgrave is a campaign-based, miniatures-agnostic skirmish wargame. Each player control a wizard, their apprentice, and around eight other mooks as they delve into a frozen city, attempting to recover magical treasures and hold off deadly monsters. Miniatures-agnostic means it’s not like a Games Workshop game where you have to buy official miniatures. You can play with pretty much whatever you want. And campaign-based, meaning your wizards gain loot and experience and change from game to game.

For the past several years, I’ve been 3D printing and painting miniatures and terrain to get a group of folks interested in playing.

It’s been something I’ve had an interest in since the early days of the pandemic, but thanks to the pandemic, it took until this past year for me to really get going on organizing and playing. I’ve been running a table of it every Saturday at our FLGS Gamenut (Friendly Local Game Store), for three or four months. Time is a blur these days. Things started out with just me and my friend Gene going head to head, but today, we had five people playing –the most we’ve managed so far, and we have a couple more people who have played in the past or are interested. Growth has been really good, and I’m very happy with turnout lately.

Gene, who also owns Gamenut, has pointed out that the trick to building a play group for these niche games is having one really dedicated person, and in the case of Frostgrave, that has been me. It’s gratifying to me to grow something like this and share my love of the hobby with others. I hope we keep it going and growing because there are all sorts of cool supplements and scenarios I want to play in the future.

Otherwise, not much going on for me today. Yesterday, I finished the first Murderbot novella, All Systems Red, and enjoyed that. I have picked up Lies of Locke Lamora as my next read. I’ve heard so many good things about it over the years, so it’s time to give it a try. After dinner, I painted these two idiots who will die with honor (or not) in Frostgrave games in the future.

A goblin and a thug for Frostgrave.


white and blue bokeh lights

Gaming, Miniatures

Tips on Running a Murder Mystery RPG Session

I recently ran a session with a murder mystery plot and I found it incredibly difficult to put together compared to one of my more standard style D&D adventures. I read up on the subject some, worked out my plotline, and ran the session all in one day. It was pretty successful, according to my players, so I thought I’d share some tips I have if you want to do something similar in the future.

The best thing to do is start with “who done it” before anything else. Figure out the legitimate facts and the “answer” and work your way backwards. Along the way, develop your cast of characters who are red herrings or other potential suspects. One downside of working this way is that you may discover a character who is a more likely candidate as murderer, but if so, just tweak them in and make adjustments. But starting with the killer means you know your end point, your goal for the players to reach.

For structure, look at existing procedurals for guidance. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel here. The great thing about being a game master over being a fiction writer is, nobody has any expectations of originality in a game. In fiction, you have to get past the gatekeepers to sell anything and reach the audience, and they want to see things done differently than the way they have before, but if anything, players don’t often want to see things totally new- they want the familiar and fun. For the structure of my dwarven mining family and the murdered patriarch, I borrowed liberally from Knives Out.

Establish a “real” timeline with the facts, then build individual suspect timelines so you can answer the questions the PCs will ask in character. Gaps or conflicts in timelines can be an important clue to discerning players. Really flesh out your supporting cast. Give everyone a beef with the victim so there’s a plausible reason to suspect them all. Your players are going to interrogate them, so you really want to get inside their heads. Try to make them distinct, but again, don’t be afraid to lean into tropes and stereotypes. I have maybe 4 distinct character voices I can do, but you can give them verbal tics or personalities to make them stand out as distinct.

Structure the nature of the relationships such that you can encourage the players to question them in an order that fits your narrative. Giving the right information at the wrong time can completely undermine your structure in a murder mystery. In fiction, the characters figure out the solution at the right time and place for the narrative structure, but you have to work a lot harder when the characters are controlled by real people trying to actually solve the mystery. The only solution I found to this problem is to provide compelling information about everybody and only give clues to eliminate suspects late in the game so that they can begin to narrow things down only after a good build up.

For my mystery, I had four siblings that all stood to gain from their father’s death, and the players naturally took the hint of the birth order to question them, which meant that the actual murderer, the secret fiancee of the youngest son, really only came into the picture late enough that it felt like they were really doing the work to uncover the secrets.

Don’t be afraid for the players to get things wrong. Getting it wrong could end up being just as interesting as getting it right. Getting it wrong could make them new allies or enemies for life. Let the players think they figure it out right if they went entirely off base. Even consider changing your solution to make them feel successful if that matters to you more.

It’s not important here that you tell a good murder mystery on paper. It’s important that you lead an entertaining experience of figuring out a mystery. Let the players enjoy the paranoia of suspecting your entire supporting cast. Have fun listening to them discuss theories and analyze things. That’s where the real fun is, for me — listening to them debate and struggle and theorize. If you can do that, even if the landing isn’t perfect, players will still look back on the session fondly.

For instance, I don’t think that I did the best job of revealing the murderer. Ultimately, I did a good job with the cast and setting up clues, but the murderer was introduced too late and perhaps too obviously. Some lucky insight roles really saw through her – but keeping her introduction until relatively late, and not making her a prime suspect meant that the mystery unfolded at the pace I wanted, just at a minor cost of a little bit of narrative satisfaction that bothered me more than it bothered the players.

Really landing that “surprise” moment of who did it with smart, engaged players is nigh-on impossible, I think, but maybe it can be done. If you have any tips on how to manage that part, I’d love to hear them!


Five Reasons I Prefer Running Role-Playing Games to Writing Fiction

It’s true. I do, and a testament to this fact is that I’m involved in three games of 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons right now, and haven’t really written a story successfully in over a year.  Due to this discrepancy, I’ve been thinking about why that might be.  Here are five reasons I’ve come up with.

Originality doesn’t matter

In my fiction, I work very hard to be as original as I can. If I lean on a trope, I try to subvert it. If I’m inspired by something else, I try to keep that inspiration as hidden as possible.  I work very hard to remain original in my fiction.  I don’t know why.  It’s probably not necessary to be successful. It’s just one of those rules I seem to stick to.

In games I run, all that goes out of the window.  The only hard and fast rule is that I want the players to experience a fun story and just generally have fun. If that means stealing liberally from other sources, I don’t mind.  RPGs wear their influences on their sleeves. They pretty much owe their existence to Tolkien fans, so a little obvious inspiration is accepted and even to some degree encouraged.

No editors.  It’s direct to the intended audience

I don’t mind editors. They do a good job of helping my work improve through their process. But the psychic wear and tear of being a writer is one of being constantly and utterly rejected over and over again. It means that if you measure success in getting your fiction to the reader (which I do), then you’re not going to feel the zing of success very often.   With RPGs, I get to tell stories and I don’t have to worry about selling them to an intermediate who determines if the work is worthy. I produce it. People play it.  There’s no middle man I have to get through. That’s refreshing and good for the soul.

Immediate response

In fiction, getting feedback on a work outside of critiquing is rare, and valuable, but often not very timely.  When running a tabletop game (including “virtual” tables), the feedback is fairly immediate, so long as you pay attention.  A good GM can tell if the players are having a good time, and if not, adjust things accordingly.  There’s little time between what you orchestrate and the reaction of the “audience” (which aren’t really even strictly an audience.  See next item.)

The other players are co-conspirators

We’re fond of saying that writers only bring part of the story, and the reader brings the rest, but I don’t see them in my office typing the manuscript and helping me figure out tricky plot points.  Players in a tabletop game are in on the gag, they’re there to shape things and play their part.  They’re semi-autonomous narrative characters, and as someone who struggles with weak characterization, I very much enjoy out-sourcing that work to sub-contractors.

No writer’s block

Put me in front of a group of eager players, and I will spin a yarn.  I don’t know where it comes from half the time… I do an odd mixture of prep and GMing on the fly. I’m often as surprised by the direction of things as the players might be.  There’s an energy in my GMed games that I don’t capture well in fiction.

I’ve never had GM’s block for more than a day or two.  Given all the reasons above, and their counters on the fiction side, it’s relatively easy to break free.  The problem with fiction is, well, if you want to do it professionally, you cannot make mistakes.  Unless you’re blessed with some remarkable talents, learning to write a good story is like learning to build a bicycle from spare parts.  There are so many moving parts to a story, and getting that right is an outsized effort for the rewards.

A lot of this boils down to me questioning whether i have any interest in being a “professional writer” moving forward, and whether or not I can find the same satisfaction I used to get from writing that I can easily get in the form of playing tabletop RPGs.  I don’t really know the answer to that right now.

The flaw of RPGs is that it’s all work for an audience of 5-6 people.  When it’s done, there’s often little evidence it existed; it’s ephemeral and limited.  Then again, is a short story really all that different anymore?  Certainly very few if any of my stories will outlive me or even their original publications.

Am I done writing fiction? Honestly, I hope not.  I’ve been here before, and it does have a few advantages and thrills over playing around with friends with dice.  It’s entirely possible I wrote this post simply to make myself feel better for utterly failing to produce any in the last 12 months.