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