Thursday, 24 May 2018

Unboxing: Halfling Shirt from Games Sesh

An unboxing of the Halfing t-shirt I designed for Games Sesh's range of Fantasy RPG Shirts

Myserious Green Package (address label removed)
It seems standard practice to send soft materials like clothing in tough plastic bags these days, and although the parcel looked like it might have been carried by rabid winged monkeys to Zhu Towers the parcel was still intact with no rips or tears. Opening cutting through a folded over bag end, with a pair of kitchen scissors. Inside...

Another layer of wrapping and a funky flyer
...was another layer of packaging. Thinner transparent that keeps the shirt clean and protects it a bit more. Also a flyer advertising the other Fantasy RPG T-shirts I've designed for Games Sesh (I didn't do the flyer, but yay 35 degrees!) the internal bag had a weakly glued flap so easy to open.
t-shirt unfolded
The t-shirt - Gildan brand 100% cotton, black, nice quality. The silkscreen print is smooth, not overly thick and holds the detail of my drawing really well, I think the print guys did a top job on that. Apologies to the Kender girl on the left as her face is a bit folded up in the photo. It's a definite non-iron wash inside-out, dry on a hanger job like most printed shirts.

Black D20
And there's a handy black D20 dice included ready to roll up yet another Halfling character and send them off on an adventure!

Halfing drawing [ZHU] 2018

The Halfling shirt along with Elves, Half-Elves, Fighters, Barbarians and rest of the Fantasy RPG T-shirts can be seen at Games Sesh

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Salammbo: The First Wargame

Gustave Flaubert's Salammbô is an 1862 work of historical fiction, set in Carthage between the Punic Wars.  There are scenes of a temple raid that reads a little like something out of Howards Conan the Barbarian saga, or a Dungeons & Dragons game, scenes of strange exotic ritual centred on the titular priestess of Tanit and vicereal bloodletting, battlefield carnage and baroque siege tactics.  It's very nearly only the use of familiar place-names from Old Earth and lack of overt supernatural special effects that prevent it from being, perhaps, the first fantasy novel.

Also of interest is a brief paragraph that seems to describe a wargame being played in preparation for battle:

"The four chiefs met together every evening in Matho’s tent, and squatting round a shield, attentively moved backwards and forwards the little wooden figures invented by Pyrrhus for the representation of manouvres. Spendius would demonstrate Hamilcar’s resources, and with oaths by all the gods entreat that the opportunity should not be wasted. Matho would walk about angry and gesticulating. The war against Carthage was his own personal affair; he was indignant that the others should interfere in it without being willing to obey him. Autaritus would divine his speech from his countenance and applaud. Narr’ Havas would elevate his chin to mark his disdain; there was not a measure he did not consider fatal; and he had ceased to smile. Sighs would escape him as though he were thrusting back sorrow for an impossible dream, despair for an abortive enterprise."
Gustave Flaubert, Salammbô 1862


While the origins of Chess go back to 6th Century India, Georg Leopold von Reisswitz's Representation of Tactical Maneuvers under the Guise of a Wargame formulated in 1812 for King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia, is recognised as the first modern wargame, insofar as it attempts to reasonably simulate warfare, including practical manoeuvres rather than rely on abstract grid-based tactics as Chess.

The passage in Flaubert's Salammbô appears to be an account of Kriegspiel by a Frenchman some 8 years prior to the Franco-Prussian War and the subsequent popularising of von Reisswits Kriegspiel on the international stage. There is some irony in this, as Flauberts house in was occupied by the Prussians during the conflict, which presumably had been suggested by military simulation, but I can find no particular evidence of Flaubert's interest in Prussian military matters before this unfortunate turn of events in his letters or biographies to explain the appearance of such a wargame in his novel.

Flauberts imaginary Kriegspiel was not intended to be contemporary, but is rather projected back to The Mercenary War in Carthage, between 240 BC – 238 BC.  Flauberts main historical source for Salammbô was Polybius' Histories (circa 150 BC) specifically Book I, ch. 65–88. It makes no mention of a game being played. Any archeological evidence Flaubert may have drawn upon in order to have Matho, Spendius, Narr'Havas and Autaritus studying strategy and practicing tactical manoeuvres also seems elusive, perhaps the figurines overlooked by archeologists as toys or religious fetishes, or were non-representational, beads or other such items, or simply all destroyed by the Romans when Carthage fell. Certainly Flauberts evocative image of men hunched around a shield suggests a certain level of improvised tabletop action.

Druilette | Salammbô 

Flauberts text plainly attributes the invention of the game to a certain Pyrrhus of Epirus (318–272 BC) the Greek King and General from who we derive the idiom Phyrric victory - that is a victory in which the losses for the victor are greater than the losses of the vanquished. This allusion might certainly explain the despondency of Flauberts game-playing mercenary generals. Unfortunately Pyrrhus writings - treatises on military matters, presumably including his wargaming rules and memoirs are lost to history. However Aelius Donatus (circa. 400AD - 600 years after Carthage fell) observes in his fragmentary, partially reconstructed and incomplete Commentary on the Roman playwright Terence, that Pyrrhus "invented a sort of game, like that of Chess, to represent the different ways of making attacks, and drawing up armies in battles" (according to Symons, Universal History,  1738 - I cannot find a translation of Donatus Commentaries, perhaps a passing Classics scholar might shine a light here), and it may be that Flaubert is following Donatus himself, or other later sources that draw on him in his description of The Pyrrhus Game being played out in Matho’s tent, predating the emergence of Chess in India by some 800 years.

But unless there is a full set of rules buried in Donatus Commentaries, what The Pyrrhus Game was actually like, how Chess-like (abstract) or Kriegspiel-like (simulationist) it was, and if it even existed at all, is anyones guess.

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Battle Masters 2: Battle of the River Tengin

Welcome back to Chapter Two of the continuing play through of the second battle in the Games Workshop / Milton Bradley Battle Masters Campaign.

Music this time comes courtesy of the VHS vaults. If you really like Stu Phillips soundtrack to the original 1978 Battlestar Galactica TV series you'll really like Lee Holdridges soundtrack to the 1982 Swords & Sorcery adventure movie The Beastmaster, starring Marc Singer of V fame and very loosely based on an Andre Norton novel I've never read.

The Battle of the River Tengin

Apologies for the blurry photographs - the final one in this sequence isn't so bad.

The Empire army positions are dictated by the scenario, while the Chaos player can position her army wherever she likes within the first two hexes at the north of the River Tengin, or is that Kwell?

Initial Depositions
As the crimson orb rose from behind the hillsides, the first watchman of the west fell - the breying hordes of chaos drawing first blood, breaking the hastily defenses of the lands of Men. The great lumbering war ogre clambered through the central pass gnawing at the feeble manflesh and ignored the volleys of arrows and crossbow bolts like gnats on a aged donkeys fetid hind.

the battle rages on
The infernal mechanical deity jerked and shuddered forward vomitting forth its hideous alchemical metorite into the iron cased flesh of the Mistress of Darkness. Errupting in flame and despair, her eldritch soul blasted back into the eddying dust from which it had spawned. Yet still the great hordes of Darkness held strong, slaughtering the Knights at the Eastern Ford, their rusted iron turning the river Tengin red with the blood of Men.

slightly less blurry photo

Slowly the denizens of darkness wore down the weary manflesh with axe and sword and spear, until finally only the great iron demigod, bringer of thunder and devourer of the Daughter of Hel remained. Yet the gods of war  smiled not upon that idol, and despite it's lurching and roaring, not one of its sulpherous projectiles reached the remaining emissaries of darkness. In disarray and despondency the cult of iron surrendered, abandoning their infernal engine. The forces of reason once again vanquished before the gibbering hordes of Chaos.



The game took 1 hour 20 minutes, and after an initial fun start was somewhat of a grind, not helped by the fact the Beastmaster soundtrack is quite short, and extremely repetitive.

Again luck dominated the game with the Canon making only one hit - albeit in a narratively satisfying one, utterly destroying Gorefist.

The terrain bottlenecking  combat, while perfectly reasonable, especially at river fords, when combined with infrequently activated units (looking at you, Orcs) in the strategic spaces really made this game drag. As a sidenote, I have a feeling that many players responding to this phenomenon would decide the game was broken  and should be rewritten to fix this problem - perhaps friendly units could pass through each other, or Orcs could activate more often.  Of course, it isn't the game systems fault, it's not broken at all, it's just a tactical error by the player that would have been lessened by placing a more mobile unit in that critical space. The difficulties of manoeuvring large bodies of troops through terrain is a large part of what ancient/medieval historical and fantasy wargaming is really about, and I'm really happy that Battle Masters, despite all its simplicity retains some aspect of that.

So it is definitely worth taking note of which units get to move most frequently and ensuring they don't get in the way of other  units, so by counting cards we can get an idea of how mobile the forces are...

EmpireLord Knights1124%
ChaosBeastmen 69%
ChaosOrcs 710%
ChaosWolf Riders 1421%

Activations is the number of times the unit appears on the Battle Cards that are drawn for troop activation, and Frequency is that number as a percentage of all that armies moves - so each turn has that percentage chance of that unit moving. As an update to Battle Masters: Pocket Edition I might put the frequency stat on the Unit token as a reminder of how often the unit gets to move and/or attack.

Also found that the Empire Man-at-Arms unit icon and the Empire Crossbowman unit icon are too visually similar at small sizes and after a few ales and battle casualties which icon represents the Chaos Lord and which are the Chaos Champions are not particularly memorable. It doesn't make the game impossible, just creates a bit of dithering and narrative uncertainty that could be ironed out with some more expressive graphics - "feather hat guy facing left" and "feather hat guy facing front" don't really communicate "archer" or "crossbowman" very well either.

Keep thinking the Ogre is a War Elephant in Middle-earth Drag, and the Chaos Archers are effectively slingers and the whole thing is like something out of the Punic Wars. But that's probably just some external reading bleeding in rather than the designers inspiration or intent, but an interesting direction nontheless.

Salammbo - Druillet (1981)

Strategically, positioning cavalry, supported by ranged troops positioned behind then at the fords would have created a much more effective meat-grinder. Notably this is very similar to the only real strategy involved in Battle Masters predecessor Heroquest, where doorways are used to bottleneck the onslaught of dungeon dwellers.

Thinking a little about developing Battle Masters Pocket Advanced into a richer Fantasy Battle Game, adding magic such as healing or an additional attack dice within range of a spellcaster could be interesting, as could some kind of Morale mechanic, as otherwise the loss of the Lords isn't as dramatic as it could be - this could be a frenzy, perhaps a Full Army move with +1 attack dice for the Chaos side,  followed by a -1 attack dice to represent them subsequently falling into disarray. Perhaps the Empire would have to roll before activating to reflect the lack of command, or if we go with the hand of cards idea mooted earlier, perhaps drawing a limited number of cards.

Another note for Battle Masters Pocket Advanced would be implementing a saving throw differential, so perhaps troops that don't have shield icons don't have a saving throw, and perhaps there's a 5+ save as well for heavily armoured troops.

Useful links:

Battle Masters: Rulebook
Battle Masters: Pocket Edition Prototype PDF
Jay Digitals guide to Making Battle Masters

Thursday, 3 May 2018

Battle Masters 1: Battle of the Borderlands

Playing the first scenario in the Battlemasters campaign...

To set the atmosphere, we decided against the cheesy Mars from Holst the Planets suite used in the Battle Masters advert, and instead put on Yes keyboardist Rick Wakemans 2001 prog-synth opus 'Songs of Middle Earth' which effortlessly blends new-age pseudo-medieval electronica with rambling ambient cinematic up-beat pop-funk that occasionally verges on a kind of folksy dungeonsynth. Well it makes a change...

Scenario 1: Battle of the Borderlands

The scenario is straight-forward, the Empire player must defend the Ancient Tower, while the Chaos player must take the Ancient Tower. Having printed and cut out the Battle Masters: Pocket Edition Prototype and persuaded Mrs Zhu to sit down and throw some dice, everything was set up and ready to commence the epic battle of good and evil...

The Gods of Chaos smiled down upon the arrayed army of evil. Goblins, Orcs, Beastmen, Knights of Chaos and Mohawked Archers.  The Ruinous Powers deigned to lend strength and speed to the Wolves, who rushed forward and devoured the great iron ball vomiting war-machine of mortal Men, before falling to the arrows and spears of their foes, their bellies full of iron and sulpherous black powders.

The Battle Rages On
Enraged at the loss of their mechanical contrivance, their faith in alchemy and delusions of mechanical superiority broken before the onslaught of pure ravenous animal hatred, the Knights of the Empire and their Lord sallied forth with grim determinance, cleaving swathes through ranks of goblins and orcs, the great hero of the Empire single-handedly destroying many of the foul beastmen, but alas for the fates of Man, ultimately trampled into the blood-soaked soil by the tramp of cloven hoof.

The Tower Falls to Chaos
The Knights too succumbed to the cruel blades and fangs of the Orcs, leaving only the stalwart men-at-arms and archers to face the hordes of chaos. Too few were they, too far spread out, too ill equipped. for the indomitable Gorefist marched towards the besieged Tower to claim her destiny.

As the laughter of mad gods echoed through the valley, storm clouds gather across the eastern marches of the Empire...


The game took around 45 minutes to play, and overall an enjoyable time was had.

We were plagued with unlucky dice-rolls when saving, only 1 hit was saved during the entire game, which is highly unlikely, but there it is. The game is very luck based - with both completely random movement and combat dice rolls meaning that the amount of tactical play is minimal. If we consider Battle Masters as a wargame - in some way as a way of thinking about battle, and not simply an abstract game of dice rolling like Snakes & Ladders, the command and control capabilities of both armies are nearly zero.

While the player might plan an overall strategy, once in the field the random unit activation makes this almost impossible to implement, putting the player in a very reactive role, not only against the other player but against the uncertainty of the action of his own forces.  Perhaps  Battle Masters: Pocket Advanced might see the player draw a hand of 5 or so cards and decide which one to play, giving greater control, but still having a level of uncertainty to represent the miscommunication, morale and fog of war.

I was a little overconfident and decided we should abandon the rulebook and play from memory, subsequently we played the Ogre wrong - you have to draw his attack/move cards randomly, and we stopped if he couldn't make his attack rather than continue to draw all the cards, which made him sightly less fearsome than he might have otherwise been.

Tracking wounds was a bit fiddly with the little bits of red card.  It's interesting that in the original game, each unit has several miniatures, these are not removed from the stand to reflect falling unit strength. It's almost as if the principle was considered, but then abandoned, logically it would have required more Cavalry models per stand (assuming cavalry should be harder to kill than infantry) and so been more expensive to produce.

Do not remove these miniatures via
A similar reductive mechanism could be to stack 3 unit markers per type and remove them until gone, which would be a more satisfying way to keep track of damage, although this would undermines the principal of having minimal physical requirements to play the game and a longer set-up time required,  so perhaps just less fiddly wound markers. An alternative could be unit identifiers and a separate tally sheet, but I think this would obscure the information and detract from the board-map as focal point although it adds a fog of war element in not knowing the enemies strength at a glance.

It's notable how directly the simplified iconography alters the emergent narrative in play. The Goblin Wolf Riders just became "Wolves", and the Empire Lords and Chaos Champions just became the single characters - icons representing Gorefist and Ferdinand rather than a unit.

Bluetacking terrain to the board is a must, else it gets knocked around when moving units.

Empire player decided  strategy was wrong and should have played much more defensively, using the Knights to block movement at the fords as quickly as possible and then wear down the enemy using archers, rather than riding out to meet them. Chaos player disappointed with not being able to get her Archers into the fray, but was pleased enough with claiming the first victory.

Continue the Saga of the Battle Masters: Chapter 2: The Battle of the River Tengin

Monday, 30 April 2018

The Gates of Death: An Old-School Style Adventure Sheet

I thought I'd share a bit of me drawing up a custom, "old school" Fighting Fantasy Adventure sheet for the latest Fighting Fantasy adventure The Gates of Death by Charlie Higson.

Old School Gates of Death Adventure Sheet by [ZHU]

You can download a PDF of the Adventure Sheet here:

Or if you really want, you can read an overly detailed and meandering account of how this thing came into being ...

While both Jon Green and Ian Livingstone have added to the Fighting Fantasy canon with Bloodbones, Blood of the Zombies and Port of Peril,  The Gates of Death represents the first new Fighting Fantasy book by a new author since the original series ceased publication, and seems like a new beginning. The book was enjoyable and while I personally prefer the more grungy lower-level adventures such as Deathtrap Dungeon or Warlock of Firetop Mountain to epic world-saving quests, Higsons book is a fun addition to the range, and I naturally wanted to draw it back into the old world of Fighting Fantasy, and what better (and practical) way than to create an Adventure Sheet for it.

The original design work done on the Fighting Fantasy Adventure Sheet is a classic, it's neat, tidy and has a great tension between bookishness of the no-frills book-face used in the main body typography and a fantasy-adventure atmosphere enhanced by the title font, crooked quill-pen lines and magical scroll and baton frame. For me, this design is one of the hallmarks of the Puffin Fighting Fantasy run.The straight book typography and atmospheric linework creates a fugue between the worlds of dull book reading and the exciting world of play and adventure, forming part of Fighting Fantasy's success in easing reluctant readers into a wider literary world, wheras an approach of adopting a more comic-book or video-game aesthetic would have signalled casual accessibility to the largely pre-teen audience the books are aimed at, perhaps might have unintentionally widened the gap between FF and 'proper books'.

The Original

I had drawn up a Fighting Fantasy Adventure Sheet a while ago, based on the Fighting Fantasy Quest Pack design, which covers most of the requirements of the fantasy books.  I'd previously used this template to make a Election of Firetop Mountain satire on the 2017 UK General Election - parroting Theresa Mays Strong and Stable election slogan into the Skill and Stamina of some strange political campaigning game book that never was. Having played through The Gates of Death I knew the default sheet would need a little alteration to specifically suit the adventure, allowing more space for the POTIONS, which are a central element of the adventure, and removing SPELLS and MAGIC which don't appear in the book.

The printed layout was roughly sketched and doodled on to get some general ideas down. As mentioned, there are quite a few potions in The Gates of Death and some of them form a critical part of the adventure I thought that could be a a nice theme to develop, and the Smoke-oil potion transforming Demons back into humans was quite a striking visual, and something that could be developed visually and suits the idea of a border quite well so...

Graphite over Laser Print
After the initial rough, the illustrative elements were drawn up on a sheet of A3 paper in pencil - carefully measuring all the sizes of the sheet and bounding box so it would fit properly, but made it less wide as the final composition would be done in the computer. and then inked the drawing before erasing the pencil lines. I normally draw on smooth, white, Bristol Board, but I used cartridge paper for this, which is a lot softer and toothier, having a larger grain, so ink behaves slightly differently and pencil tends to indent more and it's a light cream colour. While these characteristics make it less than ideal for producing black and white line-work, and feels like drawing on butter, there is a change in line quality that is quite attractive and has a certain old-school feel, a little like surreptitiously drawing inside an old paperback book.

Ink, cartridge paper, pencil, fineliners, eraser

After drawing the border I also decided to replace the original simple sword above MONSTER ENCOUNTER BOXES with an Egyptian Khopesh, which is an important artefact in the adventure to further reinforce the thematic links with The Gates of Death. The final inked drawing was then scanned into the computer, cleaned up, removing the grey background to create pure line art, and introduced the pictorial elements to the typography and layout to create the finished design.

Reasonably happy with how it all looked on screen, the sheet was printed it out to give it a test run, making sure it fit inside the book, then playing part way through The Gates of Death until leaving Port Blacksand to make sure there was enough space to write down all the EQUIPMENT and POTIONS required.

All you need are two dice, a pencil an eraser
...and this Adventure Sheet
As I'd carefully measured it all first, it fit well and provided enough space for everything, although my habit is to write very small anyway,  so I thought I'd share the final piece it with other Fighting Fantasy fans to download and print to use in their own games if they wanted to bring a bit of old-school charm to the newest of new-school adventures!

You can download a PDF of the Adventure Sheet here:

Friday, 20 April 2018

Battle Masters

After the success of Heroquest and Space Crusade, Milton Bradley Games published the third game designed by Stephen Baker based on the Warhammer universe(es) - Battle Masters - in 1992.

The game is incredibly simple, each player draws a card from a deck which determines which of its units may move or attack in their turn. There are no rules for terrain and troop types have basic differentiating abilities, some will move more or less often depending on the activation deck, and some will attack/defend with between 2-5 dice, and some can deal damage at a distance. The rulebook is freely, and legally available from Hasbro.

Not convinced? Maybe this pre-millenium capitalist propaganda featuring childrens gleeful faces,  superimposed explosions and LARP goblins will convince you.

Now despite my love for all things detailed, clunky, overcomplicated and simulationist, from Oldhammer to Laserburn to Phoenix Command, I'm also aware that these are only flavours - aesthetic choices and by no means the one true path.  Having been idly tinkering with an extremely rules-light wargame on and off over a few years, I though it might be interesting and informative to examine someone elses approach to resolving a fantasy mass battle.

While the rules are lightweight,  the original game came in a great big heavy box crammed full of monopose plastic early 1990s Citadel Miniatures and multicoloured illustrated cards for movement and a massive play-mat for moving them about on.  Notably the artwork on the box cover was created by the mighty Fangorn aka Chris Baker a name that goes right back to the very earliest days of White Dwarf, and Games Workshops British Edition of Dungeons & Dragons.

Battle Masters 

Despite it's creative pedigree the 1990s full colour artwork and the fourth generation regurgitation of fantasy tropes that had been mainstreamed for about 20 years isn't ever going to float my boat, and I've no intention of hanging around on eBay waiting for the game to drop so I decided to take the essence of the game, strip away the products marketing reliance on overly elaborate plastic toys, and make it something a little more like an Avalon Hill hex-and-chit wargame, or something like Steve Jackons Ogre: Pocket Edition or the soon to be re-released The Fantasy Trip or perhaps even Gregg Staffords White Bear and Red Moon, in an attempt to take Battle Masters right back to the origins of fantasy gaming, and make the game itself more accessible.

However, while the rules are freely available, they are not enough to play the game straight out of the book, as various aspects of the game are embedded in the Battle Cards and unit stands which aren't in the rulebook itself. After some assistance from the ever helpful Oldhammer crowd, including a great battle report including all the original models in their unpainted multicoloured plastic monopose glory, I tracked down a great resource that had all the necessary details, and perused several earlier worthy printable versions, including Emiel Ament's excellent Printable Battle Masters but nothing that quite hit the low-fi ultra streamlined mark I was after, so commenced to draw something up...

Battle Masters: Pocket Edition
Work in Progress

Originally the aim was to get everything on a singe A4 sheet, as this would have been the most simple, econmical and accessible format to produce it in. However, it quickly became clear that there were too many components, so it's ended up as 2 sheets of A4.

The Map has been rendered to only show terrain features that effect the game. It is peculiar that the paths, woods and hills don't add movement bonuses in the rules, perhaps something to be added in to an Advanced edition further down the road.

The Unit Token carries 2 stats, the number of attack dice and the range (if any) that the weapons can fire - the head icons are very roughly drawn and based on the original Battle Masters set, I was tempted to replace these with letters of the alphabet, but wanted to keep some reference to the original game.

Battle Masters Pocket Edition Token

The Dice: Normal D6 - Attack Dice score on a 4-6. Defence Dice score on a 6. You'll notice these are the same odds as represented on the Skulls and Monster Shield on the Heroquest dice, but you'll need 6 of them in your dice cup.

Wound Markers : I haven't added any wound markers, as I plan on using small pieces of red paper, possibly made using a holepunch.

And there you have it, a bare, minimal set-up that already improves on the original by removing visual noise  that has no meaning in the game (unit shield icons, terrain features), and putting more data which aids play (the range of shooting units) directly in front of the player.

Arguably we've sacrificed the visual and tactile qualities of Battle Masters, but that's OK because you can go and buy the original on eBay if that is experience you want, and the aesthetics of 1970s hex and chit wargames have their own charms as well. And of course, reducing Battle Masters to its purest essence makes it easier to revision it in new and unforeseen ways once the value of the game itself has been established...

You can download the 'playtest' version of Battle Masters: Pocket Edition print and play it yourself - along with the simple map-board and icons there are also the Battle Cards you need to decide which units move.  If you do give it a go, any feedback would be much appreciated!

Battle Masters Scenario 1:
Battle of the Borderlands

Meanwhile I am going to play through and write up the short campaign of 5 games included in the original Battle Masters rulebook, starting with Battle on the Borderlands with an eye on four things - does the prototype physically work, what problems arise from the format?  Does the game itself play well, where is the ludological/strategic expression/interest located? What ideas for a potential "Battle Masters: Pocket Advanced Edition" arise? And what, if anything, can be taken for my own rules-light game.

The starter campaign itself chronicles the invasion of The Empire by the mighty Chaos Lord Gorefist the Chaos Destroyer vs the Imperial Lord Grand Duke Ferdinand one briefly wonders if this is some thinly vieled reference to Archduke Franz Ferdinand III of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Gore Fist to Black Hand - the Serbian nationalist organisation who assassinated him. I doubt that much thought went into it, besides the Austro-Hungarians invaded Serbia, not the other way around. Nonetheles, once you scrape away the fantasy facade and replace the word 'crossbow' and 'archer' with 'heavy artillery' and 'artillery', consider the river as the Danube front,  there's a WW1 Serbian Campaign game hidden just there. Does make one wonder what else might lurk beneath the surface.

Useful links:

Monday, 9 April 2018

Sorcery: JIG and the Story of Hok Lee

Again we compare and contrast a 1980s gamebook illustration by John Blanche and a 1890s fairytale illustration by Henry Justice Ford:

 John Blanche | The Sorcery Spellbook (1983)

The Story of Hok Lee and the Dwarfs
Henty Justice Ford | The Green Fairy Book (1892)

Note the composition of the figure, the pose of the arms and legs. The similarities are somewhat disguised by the addition of the two tails to the Blanche figure and the complete redesign of the character into a hairy web-footed beast-creature - rather than an unfortunate chinaman with cursed dumpling cheeks - and the repositioning of the figures right leg which gives it an even more dynamic, leaping, motion.

For those interested in such things, an earlier observation on the similarity between Fords illustrations for Andrew Langs Green Fairy Book and Blanches illustration for Steve Jacksons The Sorcery Spell Book can be viewed here: REZ and the Blue Bird

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Kosmostrom: Synthicide Edition

Shortly after letting loose Kosmoström into the starless black void of space, I was contacted by Dustin DePenning at Will Power Games to see if I would be interested in doing a set of custom Kosmoström for his Synthicide roleplaying game. After taking a look at the game and the setting the decision was pretty straight forward yes. So...

What is Synthicide?

Synthicide | Hardback Rulebook
Synthicide Metal D10
Synthicide is a dark-sci-fi, tech-noir RPG set in a universe where humans exist on the bottom rung and the Synthetics - the practically immortal ai driven robots, at the top. The concept is worked through both the rules and the setting - food is scarce and becomes a focal resource, not only in acquiring it but also the effects of not having any. Gritty, not that the system is hyper-detailed, it just flows where the narrative focus is. A kind of post-transumanism prevails, where the machine consciousness and genetic engineering have lead to superstitious authoritarianism and galaxy-wide catastrophe, leaving a fragile humanity clinging on at the edges of the universe. Like Warhammer 40k Rogue Trader or Empire of the Petal Throne the huge spans of time between the present and the future brings us back to an almost recognisable place, but with Synthicide not to the faux-medievalism of 40k nor the multicultural antiquity of Tekumel, but to a cyberpunk infused '00s, familiar enough to easily slip into, but with layers and points of strangeness and the unknown to explore which keep things interesting.


The setting then has bags of old-school appeal, a downbeat 'pathetic aesthetic' to the heroes, murder-hoboes in space, it carries a rules light attitudes to stats, it's not a skill-based system, but also incorporates a lot of story-telling devices, like the twist mechanic, where subplots are generated on the fly to keep the story moving and the players on their toes,  and the Resolve / Cynicism system that works as a simple alternative, dynamic alignment system for motivating character driven role-play.   For people to like to hack systems, there is a small goldmine for simple and easily appliable ideas to take into other games.

Due to the dominant influence of the machine-god worshipping Tharnifex cult, spacecraft have no legal weaponry, there are brief rules for ship-to-ship combat, but not endless classes of military hardware and tables of zero-g physics - despite the space-travels similarity to Babylon 5 and Elite: Dangerous, space combat is not the real focus of the game, human drama and surviving in a cold, dead, machine dominated universe is.

Synthicide Adventuring Party

Overall I really like it. As a visual person, there isn't as much interior art as I'd like, but like OD&D what  is there speaks volumes, and the design is handsome, black and white with splashes of orange that underscores the austere feeling of the setting.

The universe carries an atmosphere which is undoubtedly it's own thing, a rough and ready, cyberpunk sword and planet.  I could pitch as an alternative Rogue Trader universe set in the Age of Strife, where the Adeptus Mechanicus with their Machine-God Cult and Men of Iron hold sway, mutants and failed Adeptus Astartes cloning programmes run amok,  Terra is lost to the warp, and proto rogue-traders doing dodgy deals, and hive-world gangs (minus the camp flamboyancy) jumping off-world in custom space craft. There are echoes of Blakes 7 starfaring crew of vagabonds and ne'er-do-wells pursued by obsessive cyborg commanders and Mutoids, but no Federation, and a healthy dose of Terminator dropped into the mix. There's something of Mike Pondsmiths Cyberpunk 2020, without the rock-stars, but with a slightly funky vocabulary - adventurers are 'Sharpers' and  the gangs and corporations carving up what is left of the free-space and the day-after-tomorrow technology mixed with advanced tech of a fallen Empire,  the pre-Empire Strikes Back las-sword and planet of the Han Solo Star Wars novels, all wrapped up in a hard-tech urban drone, grimey ambient dub noise , package (although that might just be me listening to The Bug and Earths 2017 opus Concrete Desert a lot whilst drawing it up).

Why a Synthecide Edition of Kosmonström?

The original impetus for Kosmonström was to design a hugely generic, clean aesthetic that in its iconic form could be used to . It's perfectly possible to use Kosmonström  for floorplans in Synthicide, but what Synthicide: Kosmonström Edition does is take the iconic white, hard-tech sci-fi world, and wear it down under a heavy patina of wear and misuse. A pervading atmosphere of decay and grit.

Hab-station Workshop, Kitchen and Bathroom
Arthur: Good grief! Is this really the interior of a flying saucer
Ford: It certainly is, what do you think?
Arthur: It's a bit squalid isn't it. 
Douglas Adams - The Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy (Radio Script)
While Kosmonström took inspiration from Red Dwarf and the Nostromo from Alien, it took their graphic standards and reimagined them as factory fresh, gleaming product of some intergalactic shipyard - not the aged, distressed and malfunctioning versions we see on screen. With Kosmonström: Synthicide Edition this layer of lived-in wear was reinstated, and opportunity to revisit similar themes:
And in the back of my mind Zion, the ramshackle, make-shift Rastafarian satellite colony in William Gibsons Neuromancer. Or, perhaps if Kosmonström in some ways represents The United Federation of Planets, Synthicide Edition is the Terran Empire, a stained dystopian mirror held up to the optimism of scientific progress. Of course, there's no reason not to mix and match both sets - pockets of high-tech luxury appear in the Synthicide universe, as do abandoned underground habitats, which could use Planström.

Beyond the purely aesthetic charms of evoking crumbing spaceship interiors with lots of tiny lines, Kosmonström : Synthicide Edition also provided opportunity to further furnish and express the Synthicide setting. 

Small Cargo Storage Facility

One major aspect of building the Synthicide universe is the addition of labeled Cargo covering the main types of trade goods, useful in-game for loading out ships with specific cargo types, so it's possible to create a floorplan of your sharpers clipper and represent or keep track of the cargo. These stick much to the typogtaphical standards set down in Kosmoström . Using Cargo in tabletop encounters allows them to feed into narrative play - to be damaged by misfires,  reducing the value of a ships load, stolen,  broken into or infected. The Cargo tiles utility as tokens can be increased by noting the purchase cost on the reverse in pencil, making trading record keeping simple. 

Airlock, control room, low orbit cybernetics lab and storage facility.

Another aspect is developing and expressing significant narrative and world themes of  Synthicide  through the 'furniture' or 'clutter'. One of the main themes is the scarcity of human food in a largely machine dominated universe, so there are tiles for kitchen units, camping equipment, storage and communal eating areas, as well as lavatories and washrooms that increase the verisimilitude and emphasise the gritty, down at heel atmosphere promoted by the game. Alongside servicing the daily biological needs of human existence,  there are  spaceship control panels, cybernetics workshops. Many of the tiles are designed to be multi-purpose - a coffin shaped machine could be a Cold Storage unit, an ancient technological device keeping a human from before the cataclysm in suspended animation, or equally be used as an escape pod, a robotic arm could be a spare part from a robot or an icon indicating cybernetic parts.

[ZHU] Industries
 Kosmoström: Synthicide Edition

Kosmonström Synthecide Edition is avaliable now from DriveThruRPG,

Synthicide RPG from DrivethruRPG and print editions from

Friday, 9 March 2018

Dwarf, Elf, Gnome, Half Elf, Halfing and Half Orc

After the success of the Character Class T-shirts, Games Sesh commissioned a series of drawings of archetypal player character races based on classic and modern Dungeons & Dragons and other old school roleplaying game and fantasy imagery.

Dwarf | fineliners ink on board
Dwarven wizard, with wide-brimmed pointed hat, casting fireball a horned-helmeted hammer wielding fellow in mail, and a bezerker 'punk' in black plate mail and a large axe.

Elf | fineliners ink on board
A elven archer with slender sword in an ornate scabbard, an Elven fighter in leaf-patterend scale-mail with cloak and ornate elven helmet, and an Elven magic user with a pointy hat and robes covered in arcane writing, preparing to cast an offensive spell.

Gnome | fineliners, ink on board
A gnome fighter, with studded leather armour, helmet and short-sword. A very lightly steampunk flavoured (tinker) gnome thief, with apron and rock hammer, examining a jewel (gnomes are good at that) along side a gnome illusionist in the process of casting a cantrip.

Half Elf | fineliners on bristol board
A Half-Elven bard with a greek lyre and renaicance hat, a half elven ranger with leather armour, cloak, drawing a bow, and and elven druid.

Halfing | fineliners on bristol board
A Halfling magic-user thief, with an unusual caterpult staff and snood, a Halfling thief smoking a goblin-faced pipe in a fancy waistcoat and a Halfing fighter with mail and helmet.

Half Orc | Fineliners on Brisol Bboard.

A Half Orc cleric with warhammer and heavy armour, a Half Orc barbarian with manica, top-knot, dual-weilding axes and a Half Orc assassin dripping poison onto a dagger.


As usual, thumbnail sketches were produced in a Seawhite A5 Portrait Black Cloth Hardback Sketchbook using a Rotring 600 mechanical drafting pencil. I find the small size convenient for sketching anywhere, and useful for not fussing over too much detail or being precious. The initial sketches are really to get ideas down - such as the hexagonal composition and general characters and poses. All were worked up simultaneously. 

After the initial rough concepts were complete and agreed, the drawings were pencilled at full size.

The initial pencils were drawn with a Rotring 600 drafting mechanical pencil holding 0.5mm H grade Staedtler Mars Micro Carbon lead and Stanley 12" steel ruler on A3 Windsor & Newton 250gsm extra smooth Bristol Board, erased using Staedtler Mars plastic eraser and inked using 0.05-0.08 Unipin fineliners, with a bias towards the 0.3 as the main workhorse, and Uni Posca 8mm / 2.5 mm, black for large areas and 0.7mm Uni Posca white for picking out highlights.

The artwork was then scanned using a Epson V370 A4 flatbed scanner at a resolution of 1200dpi, saved as a greyscale 16-bit TIFF then brought into Adobe Photoshop on a MacBook Pro, cleaned up using the threshold tool (usually set to 175) to remove greys and converted to a 1-bit TIFF, with minor tweaks and adjustments made using custom brushes based on scans of the previously mentioned pens.



Games Sesh have produced a series of T-shirts.

These are currently availaible to purchase as screen-printed on Black Gildan Ultra 100% cotton T-Shirts from Games Sesh and there is 10% off throughout March 2018 with code PALADIN10

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Kosmostrom is Go!

The latest in an ongoing series of print-and-play roleplaying and skirmish game floor plans - science fiction themed Kosmoström Set One: Rooms Corridors, Doors & Furniture is now available as a PDF download via DriveThruRPG 

Kosmoström Set One (cover)
Kosmoström Sample Layouts:

Some examples of the kinds of floor-plans that can be created with Kosmoström:

Horsa Class Small Long Distance Trader
Twin pilot bridge, forward facing gunport, refectory and hibernation quarters

Hengist Class Light Orbital Platform
Airlock, administration room, control deck and storage rooms

Detention Block-H Deep Tharsis Panoptica Facility
Cell with single bed, Cell with suspended animation unit
Observation room with control desk, access hatch.

Sefugel Class Deep Space Exploration Vessel
Engineering Deck, Engine Room, Engine Inspection Hatch

Elesa Class Small Trading Station
Cargo Hold A with various goods, Airlock, Storage rooms


People often remark on the overall similarity between Planström to the visual language typography of Swedish flat-packed furniture company Ikea - which is an accurate observation the '-ström' are intended to be flat-packed, self-assembly definitions of interior spaces - the reference is an intentional pun.

Further to this, the graphic language of Ikea is an exemplar of a long standing design movement - International Typographical Style (or Swiss style). This style, relying on asymmetry, sans-serif typography and a strong grid structure became the dominant face of modernism, championing clarity and clinical mechanisation in graphic design from the late 1920s onwards, infecting everything from New York Subway graphic standards (1970) to the 1972 Munich Olympics, to, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the layout of TSRs Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1977), which, like Ikea and '-ström' share the use of the Futura typeface.

Cutable, open-ended floor plans for roleplaying games were pioneered by Games Workshop, and one of their earliest products were officially licensed Dungeon & Dragons Dungeon Floor Plans (drawn by the architecturally trained Albie Fiore, I believe) which provided the original inspiration for Planström, utilising modern digital distribution and home printing methods to increase availability and adding the innovation of cutter guides to aid in preparation.


Both Kosmoström and Planström share the same underlaying design ethos:
  • universality - usable across multiple genres and 
  • accessibility - low cost of entry, ease of use and visual clarity
  • flexibility - positioning of elements, scale and scope 
  • modularity - connects with other and expandable
Designed to be customisible with a minimum of effort '-ström'. Heavy black areas and colour is avoided to reduce the environmental and material impact of printing.

Visual Language

As illustrated in the example layouts, Kosmoström is designed to be placed on black board - the full-black negative space representing both unexplored regions (the unknown) and soild walls (the unknowable, boundaries of the known) both of which present barriers to movement and knowledge.

The tones of Rooms are light and open, with Corridors being darker in tone, creating a relationship between light and movement. The lighter the space the greater potential for movement - corridors restrict movement to a linear one-dimensional space, wheras Rooms afford planar two dimensional movement and the black affords zero movement.

Similarly thin lines are used to create a light tone which represents the grid to aid in measuring in movement, whereas increasingly heavier line defines objects and then increasingly resistant doors and then ultimately barriers. Doors then are breaks in the visual space - black lines across the open areas which connect and interrupt motion between the known traversable regions and the unknown.

Kosmoström design references

Universality in science fiction context is a slightly more complex set of vectors than in pseudo-medieval fantasy. The potential approaches to materials, construction and in an imagined future is a much broader and speculative field than the underground construction of an imagined past - which be it the fossilised interior of a dragon, a mesoamerican temple or a castle, these can inevitably be most readily expressed as drawings of aged stone.

Kosmoström then must necessarily narrow down the infinite options of the future and present a specific design sensibility. The initial inspiration is to move towards a generic, hard science fiction as a more objective univerality than genres such as the rockets and rayguns of sword and planet, or the skulls and chainswords of gothic science-fiction or the gangways and cubicles of planet sized mega-cities.  This aesthetic then is grounded by developments in aero-space technologies at the height of the space race of the 1960s  and informed by both the sleek white functionalist minimalism of utopian science fiction, and the slightly more aged and granular look of late 1970s space opera.

Core design references include:
Further examples can be seen on the Kosmostrom board on Pintrest.

Kosmoström element references:

Throughout Kosmostrom Sheet D: Furniture, there are a number of elements that reference both classic industrial design and set design that help establish a look based on humanist utilitarian futurism. Macintosh 128K | Tardis Console | Orac | Elite Cargo Canisters | Enterprise Consoles | Millenium Falcon Gunports | ZX80 | HAL900 | Vending Machines

Particularly of note are the signage arrows. These are set in Microgramma / Eurostyle Bold Extended - a typeface often used in science fiction and engineering contexts from the interface of the interface of the HAL 9000 computer in 2001 to the corporate identity of the Jupiter Mining Corp in Red Dwarf. These signs are intended to be placeholders or codes, but have references to vintage computing, hip-hop and graffiti pioneers  TAKI 183 | VHS 80 | RZA 69 | KRS 1 | RS 232 | CBM 64 an inclusion of the subversive vernacular, without which the aesthetic wouldn't quite be complete.

Kosmoström on DTRPG

Kosmoström Set One is available to download from DriveThruRPG priced  £1.99 / $2.77