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D&D Theory: Why Old School?

Recently I have gotten myself into a 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons game as a player, as well as wrapped up a second season as a GM in my Game of Thrones RPG game while simultaneously preparing a new RPG for online play with my friends back in the states. Suffice to say, role-playing has suddenly become “it” in terms of where all my gaming time is going. In so doing I have been kind of jotting some notes down for future articles, the loot from many conversations and I realized this week I finally have enough to put one together. In today’s D&D Theory article I’m going to be musing about the concept of “Old School Gaming”, which I think is a very relevant topic these days given the rather sudden shift of Wizards of the Coast to return the game of D&D to a more classic or old school state with the release of 5e last year.

Now I say Classic/old school state with a grain of salt as the exact definition of what that is, is a bit murky. After all D&D is 40+ old, has had many editions, sub-editions, clones and spin-offs and as such what is “classic” or “old school” is probably different for everyone depending on which generation of the game you started in and how far back you go.

Whether you love old school D&D play or not, you should thank it for some of the wonderful settings it produced.

As such I think it’s relevant to first identify what “old school” gaming is, which as I found was a deep and fairly complex, albeit interesting topic that took me quite a bit to get my head around. The question really is, is it a “feeling”, is it a “mechanic” or is it some sort of “conceptual design or philosophy”? All good questions and today I’m going to try to answer them!

I started my research in perhaps the most obvious place, first edition of D&D and tried to identify what in that early version(s) of the games like Basic, Expert and Advanced rules system differs in approach, feel, design, mechanics etc. as it compares to modern systems like 3rd, 4th and 5th edition of the game.

At first, it was quite unclear to me. While certainly the mechanics were different in many respects, the fundamentals where very much the same, D&D as a concept in 1e is really not any different than any other edition that has come out since. To me it was clear that early editions of D&D weren’t as streamlined, and refined, there was certainly a lot less standardization and quite a bit more limitations on character classes and races, and players in general. Though I can’t imagine how having those limitations and lack of rules clarity really altered the experience for the better. Fewer options sure, but I didn’t find anything within the scope of the mechanics that couldn’t be accomplished in a modern RPG if you really wanted to include it or exclude it as the case may be. A DM for example could simply say “hey in my game Dwarves hate and never use magic so they can’t be any kind of Arcane caster”. Is having the limitation as a rule in the book as opposed to an option for the DM “old school”? I don’t believe so, there had to be more to it.

The realization didn’t really strike me until I read and was reminded of one very unusual rule in 1st edition AD&D called “XP-Treasure Conversion”. The basics of this rule was that if a character hauls out treasure from a dungeon of some sort and brings it back to a safe place like a town, the value of that treasure can be converted into XP. Gygax explains and reminds us in the DMG (paraphrasing here) that while the rule doesn’t make narrative sense, D&D is a game and games have rules and this is one of them. Simply put, the rule was there to remind and motivate players (not characters) that the premise of the game is that the players characters and their alter egos (PC’s) are in fact treasure hunters. Another words that the core premise of D&D is that you go into dungeons, kill monsters and take their treasure.

Now I would imagine a modern gamer would have a real problem with that explanation when defining what they do when playing D&D. After all, what that rule & premise suggests is that the cliché about D&D is a less a myth and more a fact. That D&D really is just a light hearted adventure game about going in dungeons, killing monsters and taking their treasure. I think most modern gamers would disagree with that assessment of what D&D is. The question is however, is that the source of “old school” or “classic” gaming mentality, another words is that the goal of “old school” gaming to capture that feel of this classic premise?

While I think at this point I was getting close, I don’t believe this was it in its entirety. One clear aspect of early editions of D&D was that the game itself was very unforgiving. This concept of the dungeon crawl as a core, was layered by the uncanny deadliness of the game itself in particular as it applies to the core premise of fighting monsters. Simply put, fighting monsters in early editions of D&D was extremely dangerous, something to actually be avoided hence it was at odds with the core premise on which its founded. Mind you when I say deadly, I really mean it. I recall in the 1st edition AD&D days, having one or two characters die each session was fairly common. 1st level characters were so fragile most of the time you would make 2 or 3 in advance, create them without back story’s, hell sometimes without a name and put them in the game to see which of them survived long enough to hit 2nd or 3rd level at which point you would flesh them out a bit and give them some much needed dimensions.

The most notable aspect of all of this was that none of it had anything to do with the story of the game. The premise of the game, the deadliness of the game, and this concept of detachment from characters, it all pointed to one thing. It was less a game about story and more a game about, well the game. Putting that question to old school gamers came with its own reactions as they rejected the idea that the game was not about story. In fact, they adamantly insisted that old school gaming was “real role-playing” and what they do in modern editions is “playing CRPG’s”.

The logic was that the story wasn’t about individual characters, the story was about the world and its events, the characters were parts in it. Sometimes those parts were small, insignificant and short lived and sometimes those parts were epic, elaborate and detailed. Your roles in the game might change periodically as a result of death of an adventurer, but the story lived on with new characters. A campaign was bigger and more to them than any individual character and they were adamant at saying that there was no detachment from their characters, but rather the solemn reality that adventuring life was dangerous as it should be and the results were often tragic. Interesting concept and I think Shakespeare would agree!

Still I believe I’m right at least in one thing. I believe early editions of D&D were less about a focus on characters and more of a focus on players. I believe there is a lot of evidence to support this theory and I also believe within that logic is actually the reason that “Old School” is a premise that is different from modern gaming. I don’t believe it’s purely rules or feel related,  some part of this movement is about nostalgia.  Still I think there is a concrete difference that is identifiable between modern D&D and early (1st edition) D&D as a design concept.

That premise or concept if you will is the difference between Character Centric game design and Player Centric Game design. I will define both but it’s worth noting up front that these aren’t always rules driven concepts nor are they mutually exclusive in that all RPG’s have some Character Centric elements and some Player Centric elements. It’s just that in 1st edition D&D, the Player Centric design is both more prevalent and more firmly defined as a part of the expected flow of the game and vice versus for modern game design as Character Centric systems.

Old School RPG’s are definitely about nostalgia, but Old School design is a lot more than that.

Ok so let’s define Player Centric and Character Centric Design. The principle is really quite simple.

Character Centric design means that by the logic and premise of the design and by the implementation of mechanics into the game, a player character is the focus of the rules and ultimately the mechanics of that character are what drive the resolution of challenges and conflicts. Another words, when a players character is faced with a problem, there is a mechanical property on his character sheet that is designed to address it via mechanical rules.

For example, if a player needs to search a room, in a Character Centric design, that players character will have a skill or attribute available that he or the GM can activate to resolve the search and determine if the character finds what he is looking for. So a player will say, “I search this room for the magic ring, I think it’s here somewhere” and the GM determines “Ok make a search check, let’s see if your character finds it”.

It’s worth pointing out that Character Centric design doesn’t mean the GM is obligated to character centric play, a distinction with a difference. However it is kind of presumed that when you make a skill check, as a player you roll the dice, you know what the result is and hence know if you succeeded or failed the check. Hence if you find nothing, you know it’s not here, else you find it, vice versus if you fail you know you have failed hence you know, it might still be here, but you just didn’t find it or the ring may in fact is not here in the first place (boy that’s a mouth full!). You can also further layer this by having the GM make the roll in secret, in which case you have no information about whether or not you fail the roll, hence, if your GM tells you that you find nothing you don’t know if it’s because the ring is not there or if it’s because you failed the check and simply didn’t find it.

Creating characters in AD&D was something you did often, because they died often. Fortunately in a Player Centric design, what is on your character sheet is not nearly as important to your success as what’s in your own imagination.

Regardless however as a Character Centric designed mechanic, the activity of searching is mechanized and the results are determined with the dice.

In a Player Centric design the challenge and obstacles of the game are instead directed at the player, and it’s the player who is expected to resolve these challenges through a narrative exchange with the GM as opposed to a function of mechanics associated with his character.

Taking the same example of searching for the ring, in a Player Centric design, the GM would describe the room and situation and the player would feed the GM instructions about his activities. For example he might say, I check under the bed, in the mattress, under the pillows, all the drawers in the dresser, I search for loose floor boards and check behind the paintings and so on. The GM in turn would respond to the activities of the player. It’s presumed the GM knows where the ring is hidden so if the player says, I check in the flower pot, he finds the ring, otherwise he does not.

The point here is however that there is no mechanical function of the character that assists or somehow affects the outcome of “searching the room”. The event exists purely in the narrative, a strictly player driven resolution and it’s typically (or at least it was the case in 1st edition) because no “search” mechanic actually exists. There is no search skill, you don’t make attribute checks. It’s simply a narrative exchange between the GM and the player.

1st ed. AD&D didn’t really add skills untill later supplement books, triggering the concepts that lead to more Character Centric designs.

Again just like Character Centric design, Player Centric design is not limited or somehow unable to switch and become Character Centric at the GM’s discretion. A GM might call for some sort of dice roll based on the attributes of the character anyway, perhaps asking him to roll his IQ or lower to see if he finds the ring. It is however just like Character Centric design, outside of the premise or core function of the rule-system, it is in a sense a “GM call”.

This concept of Player & Character centric design however is a core fundamental difference between “old school” D&D and “New School” D&D. Original AD&D is very much a player centric design, while modern games starting as early as the end of 1st edition AD&D with expanded books like the Survival Guides and 2nd Edition core transitioned into a more Character Centric design with each new edition. By 4th edition the adherence to Character Centric design was so firm, it even went so far as to add “skill challenges” to avoid Player centricity as much as possible..

I think in part why Old School gamers look at modern system and make classic comments like “That’s not real role-playing” is because the game they know is heavily buried in Player Centric play, which is by nature much more narrative as it lacks the ability to resolve challenges and obstacles with mechanics.

The main commonalty all D&D systems share is that they are all, since the very beginning, purely character centric in the execution of Combat. For some reason, no one argues or has issues with combat being purely character centric, but in other areas of the game there is a never ending discussion as to what degree a game should be player or character centric.

The cliches and myths about D&D being about going in dungeons, killing monsters and taking their treasure is a definitive core of the game supported by its mechanics. However combat itself is squarely Character Centric.

One thing to note however as mentioned earlier is that combat in 1st edition AD&D was very deadly and unforgiving and as such, just by the sheer volatility of characters, the meta of characters in its own right is very player centric. So while combat might not be player centric at all in any editions of D&D, most of what’s involved around it in early editions is and I think this is also a part of the definition of “Old School” gaming. As my friend pointed out, the game is about the campaign, about the story and the events in the story and while it’s focused on characters to a degree as they act as our avatars, it’s clear that all players understand that sooner or later their characters will die and they will make a new one, but the game is not over. They as players steer the avatar and it’s their decisions, their actions, their activities that bring the resolutions to conflicts, not their characters (in the meta of course) hence it doesn’t matter which character you are using all that much as their mechanics are not involved outside of combat.

Making characters and doing so considerably more frequently than in modern design is just part of the experience of old school gaming. In Character Centric games, characters getting killed is not desired and considered more of an “event”, as it’s their abilities, skills, attributes and powers that drive conflict resolution and in essence much of the narrative. They are an important component of a players success. Character Centric designs is why we have terms like “Character Build”, as the avatar is not just a representation of a character in the narrative sense for the player, but also his abilities, skills and influence over conflict within the confines of the game. In essence in Character Centric play, the player has considerably less influence over the success of his character as he is reliant on the mechanics to resolve conflict as opposed to the player’s narrative exchange.  I will point out that I think its weird that no one has issue with overcoming challenges with character centricity in combat, but for some reason its a big fight when it comes to resolution for conflicts outside of combat.  Weirder still are the exceptions like pick pocketing and climbing walls, suddenly, its ok in 1st edition AD&D, but only for the thief class, for everyone else, I guess you just die trying?  The logic of this player vs. character centric design is a strange beast.

The use of modules in many ways is also part of the decor of early D&D play, but its not like it ended there. There were more modules produced for 3rd edition D&D then all other editions combined.

It’s expected in Character Centric games that characters are relatively safe and they walk into dangerous situations that are kind of rigged in their favor mechanically. Which is why things like CR ratings, the concept of balanced encounters, death rolls and other survival mechanisms exist in modern games, it’s all in the name of saving characters from death but more specifically in the name of preserving the importance of the narrative. Characters are an intricate part of the story, not because of their narrative but because of their mechanics and removing them from it, is in general bad. It means a new character needs to be made and the story components of the previous characters are lost, in particular for the player, as well as the mechanic advantages that reigned in his success. In a way in character centric games, characters have a greater importance.

The question is then which is better? Get ready for me to drop some life affirming knowledge, the answer is modern is better and the reason is that it’s the same fucking thing!

You might argue about old school mechanics vs. new school mechanics, but to me, Old School art blows what we put out today out of the water 10 fold.

In the end, any sub-system, mechanic or function that is added in a system becomes “available” anything that is omitted is “unavailable”. Availability however does not require or assume use, its simply there and as a GM in any system be it 1st or 5th edition, the decision, the ruling if you will of what mechanics to use and when to use them is entirely up to you. Hence in a fully Character Centric game, you can with virtually no effort go fully Player Centric at any time. Its 100% fully backwards compatible, however in a Player Centric system you cannot just “switch” to a character centric system as the rules do not exist for you to use and fall back on. If search doesn’t exist, you can’t make a search check and as a GM you’re going to have to make a mechanic up on the fly to fill in for the missing rule, if the search does exist and you want to play out a search scene, simply don’t allow the check. The obvious logic is obvious!

That said, there is a problem with running a Character Centric system in a Player Centric style, which is of course player expectation.  Consider that a players character is his investment, hence in a Character Centric system, the player invests points, or other advancements into various skills and abilities.  If as a GM you choose to go Player Centric and ignore those aspects of their character, you are kind of cheating them out of their investments.  Hence, if you are a GM (like me) who has a Player Centric style (aka old school) then you should stick to Player Centric systems if for no other reason than to ensure expectations match the result and you are not ignoring parts of the mechanical character the player might deem important to his role/story or whatever.

Old School gaming is all about enforced limitation. I find it odd that because the rulebook tells you something is not allowed, or simply by omission makes it unavailable that this somehow makes a game better than one in which all options are available to use at your discretion. It’s a silly concept and I actually hate conversations like this with Old School gamers even though, on this little blue planet there is no bigger old school gamer than me.  Still, I do understand it from a player perspective that if a mechanic exists, in particular as it applies to characters, it should be used and used often.  You wouldn’t deny someone spells or combat abilities that their character can perform, hence you should not ignore other aspects that are on the character sheet either.

If you ever wonder if new school designers have any affection for old school gaming, you need look no further then the latest releases from Wizards of the Coast. Strahd is as old school as you can possibly get, his appearance in a 5e module should quell any doubt about where modern designers loyalties lay.

I adore limitations, deadly game systems, player centric gaming, Gold to XP conversions and all that great stuff, but at the same time I don’t see why having a lift on limitations in a book, or having safety nets in a system or the absence of a Gold to XP rule changes anything at all. I’m a damn GM, if I want or don’t want something in the game, I snap my fingers and it happens. I don’t care if there is a search skill, if I say “there is no check, if you want to find something tell me how you are looking for it”, we are instantly in Player Centric gameplay, the system cannot stop me, I’m basically the god of the game. It is however a problem if I want to make a skill check and the rule for it is not available, and then I’m forced to invent shit on the fly. I don’t really see how that will result in a better experience old school or otherwise!

Hence Character Centric games do not change anything for me at all, I actually largely prefer them because it really just gives you more options on how to handle stuff. Even as an old school gamer I recognize that sometimes, stuff is just irrelevant and I want to get through a scene quickly. Skill checks are great for that. Oh your searching this room, go ahead make a check, oh you failed, great, scene done. I don’t have an obsessive need to waste time on irrelevant shit in my game and I don’t believe this makes me “new school”, it just means I’m a good GM, I know how to spend session time to keep the game fun and interesting.

Of the many things that are unequivocally classic, Keep on the Border should be a picture in the dictionary by the definition of the word.

Now I will say this. I adore, I mean truly love 1st edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons and I will happily run a campaign anytime. I think Gygax’s work is absolutely fantastic, I love the light hearted adventure and the player centric concepts of dungeon delving, for me D&D IS going into dungeons, killing monsters and taking their treasure. Is that simplistic? Is it really role-playing? Hell I have no idea, I just know that it’s absolutely fun and I love doing it in the confines of the many restrictions and funny concepts of 1st edition. I love 1st edition modules, I love its deadly nature, I adore the natural progression of meta characters from farmers with a rusty dagger to Lords of Castles and everything in between. I love watching beloved characters getting killed, I love creating new characters, I love everything about the system. I am, without a doubt an Old School gamer.

I do believe however, the argument that someone who plays modern games is “not really role-playing” or that it’s somehow a different experience is quite ridiculous. I hate these old Gonards that think their way is the right way, or even that somehow they do it differently than the rest of us. It really is absolute bullshit. I can turn 5e into 1e in a two page document, hell I can run a D&D game without you even knowing what system I’m using. It really is not that hard to add limitations, it is however hard to design RPG mechanics on the fly.

Rules are just that, rules, they are not the definition of role-playing nor do they quantify your style as a GM. You can be old school in the new school. It’s a different cover, different rules, but we are still the same GM’s.

So there you have it, research complete. I can say without question that I understand Old School gaming, there are far more nuances then that of Character & Player centric play, but at the end of the day, role-playing games is a dynamic, infinitely diverse activity. Quantifying it fully is not really possible and while I do think it’s more than just a “feel”, it’s definitely achievable in all its glory in pretty much in any system. Sure, many things about modern system irk me. A Dwarf Wizard? Get the fuck out of here with that nonsense! But that’s my world, I share it with Gygax and 1st edition, but using a modern system does not exclude its implementation. I don’t need to use 1st edition to get rid of Dwarf Mages. I might prefer it (sometimes), but I don’t see how using a system that allows it, or allowing it in a system that doesn’t creates a disparity of classifiable groups like Old School and New School. I do think Old School is a thing, but I adamantly reject the idea that Old School is only achievable in Old School systems, or that somehow adding a rule like a skill check, or offering some extra options to a character some how breaks “old school” gameplay.

I’m just going to put this here because its one of my favorite modules 🙂

Well this brings us to an end, I know that many of you role-players out there have had this conversation and  so I hope that perhaps you found something useful in this little theory-crafting article!

D&D: The GameMaster Theory

I rarely write either RPG articles or theory articles, but I think I should given that this blog was always intended to handle all forms of table top gaming and role-playing definitely falls into that category.  In particular however that I actually do love RPG’s and play them as often as I can.

I actually kicked off this blog with articles about D&D several years back,  so I thought why not get back into the spirit of things by continuing kind of where I left off.

One aspect I love to explore about D&D is its rich history as a game, fandom that is associated with it and the many different versions and variations of D&D that have been released since Gygax’s original work.   This goes far beyond simply editions of the game as we have seen offshoots, based on re-imaginings and even spoofs.  More than that though I love to muse about the theories and ideas behind being a great GM and this will be the topic of today.

Hackmaster is one of the more curious games to come out with the D&D premise, in this case it was originally a spoof of the game.

First I would like to say that I think Gygax, no matter what he ever said or thought about how his game was treated after he himself stopped working on it, he certainly should be proud of the legacy and fans he created.  His passing was a great loss to the RPG community, but really his creativity lives on and among gamers, having a story about how you played D&D in the past, is perhaps one of the most common things most table top gamers share.  Few of us will ever see the day where we create something that wonderful, it really is a lifetime achievement.

With Gygax’s passing, the RPG community lost one of the greats but it should never be forgotten how controversial many of his ideas about RPG’s are today.

Despite this however Gygax’s work is often seen in the light of what he started, rather then a body of work that is relevant in today’s gaming communities.  This irks me personally because I actually believe his original writing still trumps everything that has come out since.  He isn’t a classic original to me, he is a master who’s work is as relevant today as it was the day it was created.

For me personally their is a lot of nostalgia built into the 1st Advanced Dungeons & Dragons edition as its the first version of D&D and RPG I ever played.  That said, I do continue to use it, in particular my Gamemasters guide which I see as a platform for inspiration and as a backdrop for the creation of adventures in fantasy worlds even when using other rule systems.  I believe it to be as valid today as it was back then and in a lot of ways, it is behind almost all of the success I have ever had as a GM.  No other GM guide ever written since has provided me with the same level of input and conceptual ideas as this book.

While 1st edition Advanced D&D was not the first version of the game, to me, in these original works they were still trying to find the game. 1st edition AD&D really was the first complete vision for the game.

People (friends) often ask myself why I value this ancient and outdated tomb to modern books, a question I hate answering in person as it usually leads to conceptual arguments but… in my blog, I don’t have to entertain arguments so I will explain it.  I believe the answer is that Gygax spoke of the GM in a unique way, a way that modern RPG’s no longer do, perhaps my biggest beef with modern RPG’s in general.

In Gygax’s writings the GM is the creator of all things, the master of the game and perhaps most importantly the master of the rules.  This concept is often frowned upon in modern RPG gaming environments as it has a totalitarian, almost tyrannical feel to it.  It suggests that the GM is more important then the rules, the other players and their characters.  Its with this interpretation of Gygax’s original GM bible that I have issue with because I believe it to be both a very narrow interpretation and not at all in the spirit of the writing, yet it is a quite common interpretation and outlook on the book in modern RPG communities.  In fact its often reflected onto the man himself.

I believe Gygax’s GM guide, the bible as I like to call it, made clear that the GM was the author of the world, the story and the adventure.  He is the creator and that does have certain privileges in the participation of mutually experienced, interactive storytelling game that is role-playing. But, and this is the most important message of the book, everything, the writing, the creativity, the adventure, the game session, all of it is created solely for the benefit of his audience, the players.  Unlike is often suggested about Gygax and his writings, he valued players most of all.  With the caveat of course that the players represent characters in a story that may not necessarily, in fact should not according to the bible, turn out how the players expect or even hoped it does.  In fact, like all good story’s it should be filled with trials and tribulations and often end in sadness and tragedy as so often the best story’s do.

I always liked this second cover for Dungeon Masters Guide much more then the original.

In essence Gygax’s was a purist and something of a historian, clearly well read,  he understood that happy endings generally don’t make for a good story, an aspect of the art of creative writing and storytelling that has been lost in the 21st century.  I think the reason people believe that Gygax and his 1st edition were tyrannical and negative is because people have grown accustomed to a guaranteed happy ending, one that is expected, one that is in line with their hopes and most important one they feel control over.

A good example is the story of Romeo and Juliet.  Today, such a story would be rejected, seen as a poor ending, but Shakespeare, quite possibly one of the greatest masters of storytelling understood how powerful a tragic and unexpected ending could be and his writings are full of them.  Imagine if that story ended with Romeo and Juliet living happily ever after, would it have been as powerful, as popular and as memorable?  I’m certain that it would not.

This is what Gygax was driving at with the GM Guides approach to adventure writing and author control.  He understood that it was more important to tell a powerful story, one which surprised, or even better shocked their audience, rather then one that was predictable and concluded in an expected way.  The only way to ensure that is to allow the GM license to author, to create adventures that were quite obviously rigged to favor the direction the GM wants the story to go as opposed to where the players are trying to will it to go, which in modern games is done through the manipulation of the mechanics.

In modern RPG’s what we have is two key presumptions that always ring true.  The players are the heroes of the story and they will always succeed in the end.  A tragedy or surprise in a modern RPG session is that a character dies, a concept in itself often considered controversial, one that should be left to the rules to resolve as opposed to a GM’s interventions and in fact, its expected that the intervention of a GM will come in a form of saving a character, not ending one.  Its considered wrong for a GM to rig the death of a character, often its considered wrong to let the rules of the game end a character,  all signs of a bad GM in the eyes of modern gaming “think”.

While I actually thought the 4th edition DM guide was well written and spoke to the modern RPG gamer, 4th edition itself was almost completely empty of Gygax’s magic touch.

Now what is the cause of this turn from darkness and tragedy to light hearted happy endings?  The game.  Yes, RPG’s have become more game and less story.  We now want the rules of the game to govern when, where and how a character meets his end and when an adventure succeeds or fails with a clear expectation that the GM will drive them to success and prevent tragedy.  In my eyes, this is terrible.  One of the most powerful pieces of storytelling has been lost, the ability for the author of the story to steer it into the surprises and tragedies for the benefit of creativity and memorable moments.

Now I will argue as devils advocate and say that sometimes the rules do come through and create wonderful moments as well, but we are literally rolling the dice to see if that happens and in my experience these memorable moments are few and far in-between by comparison to the old days of a well scripted and planned tragedy or an unexpected twists.   More importantly, they feel more forced then the manipulations of a GM as the mechanics of the game and of the characters can be designed for success.  Often it’s something simple like “the door is locked and no you can’t pick it and you don’t know why”.  Oh you have lock picking at +1000 and can pick all locks with 100% efficiency so you want a roll to see if your successful?  Sure as a GM I can let you roll the dice and lie to you about how you failed anyway, but what is the point of that?  In my eyes, obvious manipulation of the rules as defined by modern games, puts to question the reason to have them.  Is it not the same thing that Gygax is saying anyway, that, the GM is the master of the game and embodies the powers that govern the laws of the universe?  Its called The GameMaster for a reason, these words were not chosen frivolously, there is power in them with a purpose.

Rules heavy games like GURPS are also fun, there is a lot to be said about a rules driven RPG, but the experience is very different.

I digress, my point here is that Gygax understood how to create a great story and he understood that the GM would need to take a lot of liberties to ensure those powerful moments, those twists, all those surprises materialize.  His Gamemasters guide defines these aspects in great detail, even going so far as Gygax arguing with his own words to make the point, a style of writing I often use myself.

The point is that the GM effectively has to cheat and Gygax was ok with it and so am I, but I think its important to note that it was underlined that its not really cheating because the rules are not that well defined very intentionally, hence left for interpretation.  Its why I call it a bible as it means something different to each person that reads it, much of what is in the GM guide is, is up for interpretation but its made clear that the authority on how it should be interpreted is the GM.  Unfortunately because of this interpretive aspect of the book, people often missed his point of why its setup this way.

The question we must then ask is,  is if this is fair?  Is it fair that one player in the game gets to decide what happens, rigs the mechanical portions of the game to create the experience he wants everyone else to have and to ensure events transpire as written and planned?  No of course its not fair, but the GM is not a player, he is your narrator, the person bringing you the adventure, he is not governed by mechanical rules and its this key aspect of the original GM guide for 1st edition D&D that is at the center of the theory behind how the GM should conduct himself.  It a responsibility to create an experience that feels fair, but clearly behind the screen is not.

His story is there for you to experience and since you have no idea how it will turn out, whether its the dice that lead you to that end, or the manipulation of events by the GM is completely irrelevant and would be indistinguishable to you if you were not aware of the rules of the game.  The dice are a meaningless component in the story and play a small role at best.  You don’t know what will happen either way and it will be surprise dice or no dice, the difference is that the dice will make it random, often anti-climatic, while a storyteller, a good GM that is, will always make it an amazing one or at least that is the aspiration.

Modules are a big part of D&D and may seem contrary to Gygax’s theories since they are usually very mechanical, but if you really read some of the original works you’ll find that the spirit of creating atmosphere is always at the center of every module written for D&D in the early days.

This is not to say that players should not have any influence over the story, again the GM guide speaks to this as well.  The players should most definitely contribute to the moments in the story in their control.  Its their dialogue, their choices, their responses to what is happening that are most important.  This however is always an illusion of control, one players insists on having rules dictated in some vein effort to grasp the reigns of control, but the dice are as much an illusion of control as the players involvement in shaping the story.  They certainly will experience the story from their own perspective, its why dialogue and the common question from the GM is “what do you want to do”, but at the highest level of storytelling is this simple fact.  You will experience the GM’s creation as he has written it, attempting to manipulate it with dice will not change this aspect, or perhaps better to say it should not.  Its more likely that using dice to determine the story will derail the planned twists and create a lesser experience, but its not going to give you any additional control.

And so this is the point.  The GM is the master of the game, let him do his thing, this is what the 1st edition GM Guide, Gygax’s greatest contribution to role-playing tells us.  Its the GM’s job to create the illusion, its the players place to sit back and enjoy it from the perspective of an interactive character.  This is what role-playing is to me and while I know countless players would argue the opposite, to me, much of the art and creativity of the game has been lost as a result of this awkward shift to letting rules govern the game.  Its also why I consider Gygax’s Dungeon Masters Guide for 1st Edition D&D the single and quite possibly only worthy source for becoming a great GM.

One final aspect of GMing I think the Gygax touched on is the concept of adaptive play, something I think a lot of GM miss the point of.  The idea is simple, you create story’s for your players, hence you must know what kind of story’s your players love and give those story’s to them with a twist.  Another words, this idea that the GM is a Tyrant and runs the story he wants to run, is wrong and not supported by Gygax’s writing though for some reason its an idea always attributed to him.  This is not at all what he is talking about when he talks about the GM’s powers and how to apply them.  In his and my eyes, its vital that you create story’s that are built around the characters, around the players preferences and always for their benefit.  Hence in a lot of ways, the act of a GM is creating a story that the players requested and often this meta conversation is what doesn’t take place between GM and players.  It must.

Gygax’s modules were always rich with story but some were very fighty. This is because he understood the concept of adaptive play, that, sometimes players just want to fight their way out of problems and that’s fine too.

If your players want a political thriller and you give them a dungeon crawl, you are not going to be successful no matter how well written, planned and executed the story is.  More importantly, you will still be a shit GM, because the core, fundamental rule for a GM is that you are a host, the entertainment and your audience is the single most important and only reason you are creating and telling a story.  If you miss that, everything else you do right will be in vein.

So that is my interpretation and theory on being a good GM.  In short, listen to Gygax, but really listen to him, not to the presumptions and discussions about his work, read the book, absorb the book and understand what ideas about the GM he is presenting.  If you can manage to do that and take his advice, you will be a great GM.




The last couple of weeks I enjoyed quite a number of great games, in particular the opportunities to game have come from outside of my normal gaming circles which made for some very interesting and fun experiences.

Deception Murder in Hong Kong
Score: 4 christmas_starchristmas_starchristmas_starchristmas_star

I picked this game up on a whim and while it was very well received among my standard gaming group, to the surprise of no one, it was particularly interesting to see how it held up among non-gamers.  I took this bad boy with me on a family skiing trip and we played it several times with people who quite literally had their first modern board gaming experience.

Whether your a gamer or not, everyone loves solving mysteries, making deception a truly universal game that can reach everyone.

In a 8 player game Deception Murder in Hong Kong not only held up but was a hit in the purest sense.  It engaged everyone, the discussions went off the rails and we spent the evening confused, accusing and counter accusing each other all night.  It was a blast!

Its really no surprise to me that this game is held in such a high regard, while the premise is simple, there is something about trying to unravel a mystery that is universally human and Deception Murder really taps into that with perfection.  I have quite a few different social deduction games and while I love them all, I think this one is probably one of my favorites at the moment.    Highly recommended.

Camel Cup
Score: 3 christmas_starchristmas_starchristmas_star

Sometimes called Camel Up, this race betting game is not something that I would ever bring to board game night at the club, but as a family game, Camel Cup really has just enough game in it to keep an old school gamer like me invested, while being sufficiently silly and simple for non-gamers and casuals.    I was really surprised by this one, I mainly bought it for the kids, but I really wasn’t expecting it to make my personal shelf.

Camel Cup makes getting the family to the gaming table very easy, gambling is just something that appeals to everyone when its not for real money.

Camel Cup is essentially a gambling game and I think that in itself is really where casual family games do really well.  Gambling mechanics ensure that no one is expecting to win based on “strategic play”, you sort of push your luck, roll  the dice and hope for the best, but Camel Cup does offer up just enough decision to trick you into thinking you might just be able to out think your opponents.  As a family game, this is among the best I have played in recent years.  Light hearted fun for the win.

Score: 3 christmas_starchristmas_starchristmas_star

A friend of mine picked this one up on a whim, I think mainly because he liked the theme and art work.  We weren’t expecting much from it when we dropped it on the table, but to our surprise, it was actually super fun.

Some of the coolest art in one of the best themes in a card game I have seen in a long time.

With fantastic artwork, and kind of a weird science-fiction western theme where you can be a gun wielding cat (for example), this is a game effectively about trying to outguess your opponents, read their mind and asses “the most likely plays”.  I can see how this game might land a bit flat if you played it with strangers, but among friends, people who you know a thing or two about the personalities, this one flourishes.  Its really just a mind game, one with simple mechanics and plenty of interesting decesions.

While I enjoyed it one on one, I think this one in particular was much better with 3+ players.  Really cool concept, a simple game that gets everyone involved instantly.  Like it a lot!

Score: 3 christmas_starchristmas_starchristmas_star

This Knizia classic is actually one of the few games from this designer I like.  While its a bit mathy, I think I like it because its very intelligent while being very easy to teach so you can introduce it to a group of non-gamers and they won’t feel like idiots.  It rely’s less on your skill as a gamer and more just on plain old fashioned intelligence.

I don’t like math, but this game somehow manages to make it fun.

It makes a good “camping” game, as it takes up very little space (at least the old version which I have).  Always really liked this one for non-gamer gaming.

Roll For The Galaxy
Score: Full Review Coming Soon

Man I feel like I’m talking about this game all the time right now, but it really hit on all pistons for me.  Its really hard for me to say exactly what it is about this game that “does it for me”, but I believe its kind of a combination of simplicity, science-fiction theme, dice element not driven by luck yet with strategic depth that really requires a lot of exploration.

One of the biggest surprises for me in a very long time.

I loved the game it was based on “Race for the Galaxy”, but I always struggled with that one mainly because its such a bitch to teach.  Roll for the Galaxy captures all the same elements of Race For The Galaxy, yet manages to be far simpler to teach, yet still has that “impossible to master element”.

Just a fantastic all around game, so much more then the sum of its parts.


Getting Started with Miniature Games

I get quite a few E-mail questions and actually get involved in quite a few conversation about paint/assemble style miniatures games, especially recently with Fantasy Flight Games announcement to make Rune Wars the miniature game.  Now ordinarily while I like the conversations and have interest in the games, I avoid getting involved personally in paint/assemble games which is why I don’t have very many articles about miniatures games outside of the pre-painted stuff like X-Wing and Armada which don’t really fall fully into that paint/assemble hobby genre.  Recently however I have decided to get involved in a game called Bolt Action and so I picked up some of these old E-mail questions and thought based on some of those questions I would create a kind of guide to paint/assemble miniatures games given that I have been doing a lot of my own research in preparation for my own little venture.

Now Bolt Action won’t be my first venture into the paint/assemble hobby.  I did a stint with Warhammer Fantasy and a pretty long stint with Warhammer 40k as well as some War Machines.  Those experience have taught me a great deal mostly in what to avoid in the hobby.  So here are a few tips and tricks to getting involved in the hobby, hope you find it helpful.

Start slow and stay slow

Gamers are a very excitable bunch and we are pretty quick to whip out our credit cards with imagery in our heads of a 3000 point army with fully realized terrain in epic level war games.  I mean, believe me I get it and I have fallen victim to the hype and over excitement of out of control spending.  Here is the reality however, in particular if you are just starting out.

First and foremost, it takes many hours to assemble and paint a miniature army.  If you are just starting out looking at a box of unopened miniatures you are still many, many hours away from playing not to mention quite a ways from understanding what impact each model/unit will have, understanding the rules and impact of the rules in actual play and how that applies to the army your building.

Secondly it always takes at least two to tango so while you might have a 3,000 point army ready to rock the people you are going to play with might not.  Its quite important that you and the people you intend to play with are somewhat in sync in terms of point values, special rules, factions etc.. so that you don’t end up spending a lot of time getting models ready that you aren’t going to get a chance to use.

All mini gamers imagine grand battles on massive tables like this but it takes hundreds of hours and dollars before you get here. You will want to make sure you really love it before you embark on a big project like this.
All mini gamers imagine grand battles on massive tables like this but it takes hundreds of hours and dollars before you get here. You will want to make sure you really love it before you embark on a big project like this.

Finally you don’t even know if you are actually going to like the game you have chosen, miniature games come in all shapes and sizes.  Research is important and sufficient to decide your interest but it’s not going to help you decide the specifics of your army, units and style of play you will eventually choose. You need multiple gameplay experiences to really understand whether this is just hype or a real long term love for the hobby as well as deciding whether X or Y army is right for you.

Starting slow simply means to get enough miniatures to get a minimum game going and get that army ready.  You will realize that painting even a small army is a big commitment and those early first few games are going to help drive your decisions about the game which will likely look very different to you then what you conceive just from reading of the rules or looking at cool pictures of fully painted armies.

For example you might realize you’re not happy with the particular faction/army you have chosen, or you might realize that some of the units you thought would be awesome are underpowered or don’t fit your play style.  You might also realize that at 500 points the game is already taking 3-4 hours more than you thought and playing a 2,000 point game is just going to be too big.  Or you might realize you don’t like the actual game at all, a really tough pill to swallow after spending many hours and dollars on a game.

Not all miniature games require you to paint hundreds of miniatures. Games like Warmachine keep the model count small and may be more suitable for those of you looking to spend lots of hours focused on single miniatures.
Not all miniature games require you to paint hundreds of miniatures. Games like Warmachine keep the model count small and may be more suitable for those of you looking to spend lots of hours focused on single miniatures.

The point here is that there is absolutely no reason to rush into things.  If you found a game you’re interested in, pick up a basic set, paint some miniatures and play a few games to make sure it’s something that will really stick both for yourself and your gaming group.

You will find a lot of people online who have huge armies with no one to play with them, or people who don’t like the faction they chose after spending hundreds of hours meticulously painting them.  Don’t be that guy, it’s a miserable experience (take it from someone who has made some bad choices).  You really want to take your time here, get the experience at a nice slow and steady pace and ease your way into the hobby.  You will thank yourself later.

When I chose bolt action as a mini game I will play, I started by reading the books for the game first. This is a nice slow way to ease into your decision about a game.
When I chose bolt action as a mini game I will play, I started by reading the books for the game first. This is a nice slow way to ease into your decision about a game.

Weigh your options carefully, don’t over-commit or make rash decisions

Most miniature games will offer you a wide variety of armies or factions options, but once you have chosen one you will find that you have to make other more specific commitments when making decisions about what to buy, assemble and paint.  Everything from color schemes, to unit types or even specific types of equipment for specific unit types will be important, ultimately defining your experience.  For example in Bolt Action you have to decide whether the NCO in infantry unit will have a regular rifle or a sub-machine gun.  This is a very simple decision, but it puts to question what the goal of that unit will be in your army, what range you will place them in during battles, how that weapon will be leveraged. These decisions can get far more complex than that, but they will often impact your army’s effectiveness and you will usually have to make them before you ever actually get an opportunity to put them on the table.

In bolt action what weapon you give your HQ choice is a permenant part of a model. If you choose a sword and realize later you wished he had a sub-machine gun you will have to buy/assemble/paint a new model. So making sure you know what the benefits and drawbacks to that choice are is important and will have impact on your options during the games you play.
In bolt action what weapon you give your HQ choice is a permanent part of a model. If you choose a sword and realize later you wished he had a sub-machine gun you will have to buy/assemble/paint a new model. So making sure you know what the benefits and drawbacks to that choice are is important and will have impact on your options during the games you play.

It can be tough to make these decisions and it’s why you really want to build your army from the smallest point count possible with the most general and simplest decisions made first.  If you are unsure which tank to take or which giant robot is best, don’t decide at all, make the decisions you are certain about instead.  For example in most games every faction has a sort of staple, base unit type be it some sort of infantry unit or something along those lines.  Start with those.  They aren’t as fancy and awesome as putting up a monster model on the table but they usually require less knowledge of the game and have fewer options to weigh, so do those first.  Play with them, gain experience in the game and from there you will find making the more difficult decisions easier.

Metaphorically speaking, don't try to re-create a 5,000 point battle of Hoth on your first game. By the time your done prepping the game will be in its next edition. Start small and work your way up to magical moments like this. When your experienced, you will enjoy them a lot more.
Metaphorically speaking, don’t try to re-create a 5,000 point battle of Hoth on your first game. By the time your done prepping the game will be in its next edition. Start small and work your way up to magical moments like this. When your experienced, you will enjoy them a lot more.

In Bolt Action for example if you choose Japan (which I have) as your faction you have a choice of 20+ different tanks from light fast ones to big heavy ones and everything in between.  Each has different effects, abilities, options and costs, it’s a fairly complex choice to make in particular if you have no idea how effective tanks are in general or what their impact will be in the game (from experience).  I Avoid that decision and will try to play a few games without a tank to see if I can come to terms with how the game works and what impact the tank will have in my army.  This is a very specific example but you’ll find such elements in almost every miniature game.  Approach these decision with as much restraint and caution as you can muster, don’t be confident in your ability to make decisions without experience, this is the most sure fire way to end up with a painted model you will never use and regret putting time into.

Always collect with and involve your friends

Ok I can’t stress this enough but unless you have chosen a game that you already know is well established in your area with lots of eager and available opponents you really want to make sure that you are not the only one diving in.  Finding a few friends who are ready to commit to collecting/painting and playing a miniature game with you is absolutely vital.  I would say at least 50% of the people I know that play miniature games can’t find opponents to play with and their miniatures collect dust on their shelves.  It’s a very frustrating experience and you are going to want to avoid it at all cost.  There is no sense in you spending hundreds of dollars and hours collecting and painting miniatures if you don’t have a solid gaming group that is as committed as you are to the game.

More importantly though is that you should not have to twist arms, beg, plead and convince people that they should start collecting with you.  The miniature game hobby is a really big time and money commitment; it’s something you really have to want to do on your own, something that you are excited about.  It should not be something you get into because your friends nagged you into it and rightfully you shouldn’t get others to join you on those terms.

Having a shelf full of un-painted miniatures is a solvable problem, having a shelf full of miniatures with no one to play with is miserable. Find some friends BEFORE you start collecting massive armies.
Having a shelf full of un-painted miniatures is a solvable problem, having a shelf full of miniatures with no one to play with is miserable. Find some friends BEFORE you start collecting massive armies.

Also be wary of committing to a game even if there is a local scene.  Miniature gamers can be a finicky bunch, as well miniature game interest can rise and fall dramatically and you might find even though there is a lot of people playing your game, they aren’t interested in playing with random people they don’t know.  Having a few friends diving in with you is a sure fire way to make sure you have opponents.  I would be wary of going into it with the assumption that you will find opponents later when your army is done.  That usually doesn’t work out so well in particular if the miniature game you chose is obscure and less known/common.

Don’t get into the miniature paint/assemble hobby for competitive play.

I think a lot of people would argue against this advice but I would caution anyone entering the hobby with the intent or sole purpose to do it for competitive reasons.

Competitive miniature gaming is an entirely different hobby then casual/theme/fun miniature gaming.  There are quite a few drawbacks to competitive miniature gaming, in particular if you are new to the hobby.

First and foremost playing competitively will usually increase the cost of the hobby to you, I would personally say by a pretty significant amount.  Miniature games are in constant flux, in particular the bigger more well-known ones like Warhammer for example.  To stay competitive you will constantly have to pick up the latest and greatest, often forced to switch armies entirely.   I would highly recommend you talk to competitive players and ask them about their experiences in your local area, most will probably tell you a similar tale,  that staying competitive is not cheap and requires a much higher commitment to collecting then you will need to make with a more casual approach.

Playing in a public space full of noise with complete strangers is impersonal enough, but doing so with people who want to beat you at all cost reduces the experience to a point where you have to wonder why anyone bothers. Finding a good tournament scene for any miniature game is not easy.
Playing in a public space full of noise with complete strangers is impersonal enough, but doing so with people who want to beat you at all cost reduces the experience to a point where you have to wonder why anyone bothers. Finding a good tournament scene for any miniature game is not easy.

Secondly and I think this is really important to understand about miniature games, as a genre; miniature games live on the premise of playing for experience, theme and fun.  They are a kind of step child of role-playing games and really have more in common with the dynamic, abstracted nature of RPG’s then they do with the strict, organized nature of board games.   To get to the point, they make very poor competitive games and the competitive scene for every miniature game that I’m aware of can be described at absolute best to be ugly and petty.

This really stems from the lack of clarity of the rules and the general “eye ball” approach of many of mechanics of miniature games.  Things like line of site, measurements for distance, terrain and many other elements are typically rules that require a level of judgement call and while in competitive play you usually have “judges” that can settle arguments, if you try to abide by the strict letter of the rules in miniature games get ready to have some whopper arguments with people.  Every rule in every miniature game I have ever played is up for interpretation and you will find an ample amount of interpreters ready to volunteer their time and energy to arguing about it with you in the competitive scene of miniature games.  It’s exhausting; definitely not something you want to get involved in if you are just entering the hobby and it might not be worth your time to ever get involved.  You certainly don’t want to enter the frey with the intention of assembling and painting miniatures with the sole purpose of entering competitive play.  If you are going to do it, ease into is slowly and be sure to talk to competition players and ask them about their experiences.  I assure you they will have plenty of horror stories to tell.

From personal experience the best approach is to enter the hobby using advice 1, 2 and 3 outlined above and if competition interests you after that, by all means give it a go.  But absolutely under no circumstance or logic should you start collecting/assembling and painting miniatures for the purpose of competing, I assure you, it will not be a good experience.  Competitive play is something you evolve into once you have exhaustively played the game and know the rules inside and out.

Now I will say that competitive play can be a lot of fun and certainly I wouldn’t discourage an experienced veteran from giving it a go but as a new player you should actively avoid it in my humble experience.

It’s a two part hobby and that’s ok.

I will say this up front that at least half of the people I know that collect and paint miniatures do it for the painting and collecting, playing the game is an afterthought and that is ok.  This is a creative hobby and if you are getting into it because you love the miniatures and have a creative need to paint you can safely ignore the above advice, pick miniatures you like based on aesthetics and have fun.  Plenty of people make army lists for aesthetics and theme, I always love playing against them but the truth is that usually don’t do that well and this is where that approach can kind of back fire a bit.

If you are going to play the game with a desire to put a couple wins under your belt, buying units/models for an army willy-nilly from a creative angle is probably going to result in you having a pretty crappy army for gameplay purposes.  I guess the point here is that, in every miniature game, every faction will have a certain amount of model/units that just suck ass for gameplay purposes.  They might be pretty or thematic, they might be fun to play, but they will be useless to you in a game.

Painting a 28mm mini to perfection will get you plenty of praise, 30 seconds after that you will be playing a 3-4 hour game, be sure you know how to.
Painting a 28mm mini to perfection will get you plenty of praise, 30 seconds after that you will be playing a 3-4 hour game, be sure you know how to.

It’s not that much fun to lose all the time, even if your not that competitive and while I will be the first to admit that I rather lose with a pretty army then win with a cheesy one, I think there is a fine line between a crappy list put together for aesthetics and a cheesy competition list created for the sole purpose of winning.  You will sometimes need to paint models you don’t like that much because they are good for your army and exclude beautiful ones because they are shit in your list if you want to make something resembling a decent list.  These decisions you will have to make for yourself but know that there are tradeoffs either way.  Think of your opponents a bit here, its really not that fun to play against someone who offers no competition for you.  Sure it can be fun once or twice, but if you are crushing someone every time you play you would get bored too.

My suggestion is that before you buy/paint/assemble a model, be sure it’s something you are going to use or make peace with the fact that your adding it for your shelf to look nice rather than the impact on the table.

Now this is just advice and I will be the first to admit that I don’t always take it myself.  I will often find a unit/model in my army that I think looks great but is useless for the game and use it anyway.  I’m not terribly competitive and neither are my friends but I’m usually selective about it.  You really want to put some thought into the competitive angle of your army even if you’re the creative type and just want to play for fun. Its kind of good etiquette to show up with a list that puts up a challenge.

It’s a two part hobby but it’s not ok

Ok so devil’s advocate time.  Some people get into the hobby but they don’t want to paint, they don’t have a creative bone in their body and they just want to play the game.  It may be ok for that person but most hobbyists will agree that playing a game with your meticulously painted miniatures on a beautifully orchestrated battlefield only to find your opponent with hastily assembled unpainted miniatures is neither fun or in the spirit of the game.  If you don’t want to paint miniatures and intend to use greys you will find it difficult to maintain the interest of your opponents.  In fact many gaming groups have house rules against that sort of thing and in competitive play it’s usually not allowed at all.

Miniature war games are about the visual spectacle, don't be that guy that shows up with greys, it sucks the joy right out of the room.
Miniature war games are about the visual spectacle, don’t be that guy that shows up with greys, it sucks the joy right out of the room.

There are a couple of reasons for that and it’s not that tough to deduce.  This is a visual game, it’s about the spectacle of it all and people put a lot of hard work into making it so.  It’s also not really meant to be a cut throat competitive game and it’s not about rushing through the game but enjoying the experience, the ambiance of it all.  You can think of it like golf, people could play golf on any open field and get the same level of competition but they build golf courses to be exotic and beautiful because the ambiance is just part of the game experience.  It’s the same with miniatures game and coming to the table with a bunch of greys with no intention of ever painting them lacks etiquette and is a bit impolite to your opponent.

Suffice to say if you’re not interested in painting miniatures, you may want to consider alternatives like pre-painted miniature games or just tactical board games that simulate to a degree the themes and genre of miniature war gaming.  There are plenty of them, in fact I talk about them all the time on this site.

Don’t go overboard on supplies

Most hobbyist will eventually collect a massive armada of supplies, but the market is largely geared towards selling to new players and you will find that there is an immense amount of gear you could potentially buy for assembly and painting of miniatures.  90% of it you won’t need now or ever, in fact for most games 4 or 5 different paint colors, some primer and a couple of brushes with a few household tools you probably already have at home is enough to paint entire armies of miniatures.  The 100 colors and 30 brush set or other large box sets are without question crazy overkill.  In particular paints, if you buy one of these large sets the large majority will dry out long before you ever get a chance to use them, it’s really just a waste of money that would be better used to expand your army.

Unless you are some sort of artist or professional painter you just don't need this sort of thing. The reality is that most armies can be painted with 5 r 6 pots and a couple of brushes. Save your money for miniatures.
Unless you are some sort of artist or professional painter you just don’t need this sort of thing. The reality is that most armies can be painted with 5 r 6 pots and a couple of brushes. Save your money for miniatures.

On the flip side quality equipment is a good idea, in fact it’s far better to buy 5 high quality paints then it is to buy 30 cheap ones.  As far as paints go you really want to decide on your color schemes, plan out how you are going to paint your miniatures and just buy the paints you need.  Don’t try to “get everything you might need”, again because in most cases these will get destroyed before you ever get a chance to use them.

When it comes to painting miniatures less is more anyway and while certainly the depth of artistic endeavor’s vary from player to player if your just starting out its usually recommended you keep it simple and develop your technique to the point where you will know what sort of gear you actually need/lack in what your trying to create.  Trying to anticipate that when you’re first starting is pretty much impossible so you really want to keep things simple and cheap until you know what you’re doing.

Don’t try to be a master, learn to do it faster.

Aside from rhyming, this is good advice for newbies and veterans alike. The goal here is to get a painted army to the table and you’re not going to be able to do that effectively if you spend 100 hours on a single model getting everything perfect.  Not to discourage talented painters from their commitment but in as a whole once the miniatures get on the table the difference between a 5 minute speed paint and a meticulously master painted miniature is completely indistinguishable and largely irrelevant.   Miniatures are small and you’re looking at them during play from 2-3 feet away, you’re just not going to see those details.  What you will notice is the awkwardness of a grey army with a couple of painted miniatures mixed in.

This is a professionally painted army that took hundreds of hours to paint. From this distance you really can't tell.
This is a professionally painted army that took hundreds of hours to paint. From this distance you really can’t tell.

The thing about painting miniatures too is that details can always be added later so your speed paints can be touched up to look perfect in the future, but its typically far better to get the job done and have a functioning painted army on the table for your games then it is to spend hundreds of hours per miniature and find yourself constantly playing with an unpainted army.

Remember that it’s a game of theme and experience, not a competitive board game

An important lesson already previously mentioned and one most miniature gamers will fail to learn but miniature gaming is a game of estimation, a lot of dice rolling and judgement calls.  It’s a simulation of battles but one so abstracted and distanced from reality as well as distanced from mechanical stability that it barely qualifies for the term “game”.  It’s really more like you are “playing” then “gaming”.   Most gamers coming into the hobby will find it a stark contrast to board gaming, in fact, miniature gaming is far closer to the dynamic/abstraction of role-playing games then it is to the rule strict and well defined boundaries of board games.  As such it requires a lot of hand waving cutesy and imagination inspired “overlooking” of the reality and often even the rules.

You will see rules like “line of sight” to be particularly fuzzy, much of the games rules are driven by these sorts of mutual judgement calls rather than strict observance so you really need to get into that spirit.  The goal of a good miniature game is to tell a fun story of a battle, win or lose, the experience should be the reason you come back not for competitive play.


I already mentioned that competitive play should be avoided by most, but it’s not because I have something against tournaments but because tournaments zero in on the weakest element of miniature gaming, the rules.  With such vagueness, trying to have a good competitive experience is more likely to lead to arguments about interpretations of the rules then it is to a fun experience and as such this advice is more about approach.  Approach it as a game of storytelling like a role-playing game and you will find the entire experience far more enjoyable, do the opposite and you will quickly become frustrated with the rules.  In fact the most common information you will find online about miniature games is people endlessly arguing about rules, pointing out the weaknesses of them and more often than not accusing the game of being unbalanced in one way or the other.  I’m here to tell you that it’s all true, miniature games are horrifically unbalanced (all of them), rules are always inadequate and you will always find things that simply make no sense at all.  It’s like that because miniatures games by their dynamic nature aren’t particularly well suited for strict observance of rules.  They are games of estimation.  Understand that, make peace with it and you will enjoy the experience a lot more.

Get out when you stop having fun

It’s really hard when you spend hundreds of dollars and hours on a game and discover you are just not enjoying it.  There is a kind of mental push that “you should play”, after so much money and time was spent.  The reality is that miniature gaming is not for everyone and lots of people get into it and stay in it for all the wrong reason.  This is why starting and going slow is advice #1.

Miniature gaming is a hobby, something you really have to truly love to make enjoyable for yourself and the people you play with.  It requires a lot of patience and in particular an extreme amount of etiquette and cutesy to have an enjoyable experience.  In fact, you could say it’s a gentlemen’s game if you can overlook the sexist term.  What I mean is that it’s meant to be played with the greatest amount of respect and politeness for your opponent you can muster.

If you find yourself bitter about the rules and balance of the game, miniature games are probably not for you.  It’s just the reality and nature of miniature games that they are not an exact science or even anything approaching it.  I have seen miniature gamers get so frustrated and angry at the table over rules interpretations, accidental bumps or judgement disputes they are ready to get into fights over it and you really have to stand back, look at that spectacle and realize that not everyone is able to handle these sorts of games and that’s ok.

Don’t be that person; if you find yourself getting angry at a miniature table, you’re doing it wrong.

General Advice About Miniature Games

There is some good advice up here I have gathered from both experience and conversations with countless Mini war gamers. Suffice to say there are quite a few things to keep in mind when getting into the hobby but I think above all else the most important part to keep in mind when diving in is that it’s a very slow paced hobby.  Things are not going to happen quickly, you are probably not going to play often and so you really have to relish the experiences and opportunities you get.  Make the most of it by being well prepared, have a painted army and terrain and really make it the visual spectacle it deserves to be.

You will find that most happy miniature gamers will eventually settle in this mellow space and its a pure joy to play with them.  Those that don’t typically either washout out of frustration or worse stick around to make everyone around them miserable.  As such finding a good group with the right mindset and approach to the game is absolutely vital.  Your opponents will ultimately make it a wonderful experience or an awful experience so having good opponents is the key to the whole thing.

Also and this is for the creative types.  Mini gaming is a creative hobby and you are in the right place to lavishly create but don’t forget that this is still about gaming for most.  People will greatly appreciate your work but you still have to come to the table and present them with a challenge and create a great experience for your opponents.  I saw often see very talented painters who put so much effort into creating visual magic on the table but ultimately make poor opponents because they forget to learn how to play the game well.  It’s an important part of the hobby to make yourself a worthy opponent so don’t skimp on that part.

Finally and perhaps most important never forget that any form of gaming is about having fun, about being relaxed.  This is a pass time, people who play these games are doing it on their days off, they are looking to wash away the problems of life and enjoy a moment made entirely for them.  Don’t ruin it by being a dick.  Be respectful to your opponent and remember that the game is about enjoying it, not about winning or losing.

Board Gaming Super Weekend Quick Reviews

This weekend my gaming group had an opportunity to get together for a rare 2 day super gaming session, I’m talking 12+ hours a day of non-stop, unlimited, wife and children free gaming. It was epic, it was hilarious and it offered me an opportunity to play and reminisce about a great many games. These are not going to be anything even approaching full reviews but some snippets and thoughts on some of the games we played. All of our games were played 4 players, I mention it now so I don’t have to in each review. Enjoy!

Cutthroat Caverns (2007 by IELLO & Smirk & Dagger Games)

Designer: Curt Covert


Cutthroat Caverns is a strange beast, it has the appearance and mechanics of a warm up game but really this is a robust and despite simple mechanics fairly thinky game. It’s really all about fucking over your friends and that alone means it belongs in your collection and reason enough to love it. The truth is however that it’s a fantasy (D&D like) game of fighting monster and every time I play it, it reminds me of those classic AD&D moments where players weren’t just cooperating to solve the many problems of a dungeon crawls but trying to manipulate the events in their favor so that their character walked out with the loot. Some foolishly compare it to munchkin and while It has built in humor and silliness there is some weight behind the game, a bit of actual gameplay. I’m surprised to find it ranked so low on because this is really a true gem and must own game for fans of the genre. If the game has any faults it’s that as an opener it can run a bit long, but it doesn’t overstay its welcome in my humble opinion.

Verdict: Highly recommended if you love take that games with a fantasy theme and have hilarious friends with a plethora of inside jokes and great banter.

Conquest of Nerath (2011 by Hasbro/Wizards of the Coast)

Designer: Richard Baker, Mons Johnson, Peter Lee


Richard Baker is actually one of my favorite writers/designers that worked for Wizards of the Coast, among his many wonderful creations he is the man who brought us the Stardrive campaign setting for the Alternity roleplay game with which I fully intend to be buried!

Conquest of Nerath is a D&D fantasy spin on old school classics like Axis & Allies, Shogun and Fortress America but with modern mechanics. I love it for its theme, its Asymmetrical gameplay and the fact that it’s a straight forward unapologetic war game. Sure it might not be the most balanced of games and it certainly has a few places where it could use some polishing but it looks beautiful on the table, it’s furiously fast paced and constantly puts you into tough push your luck decisions. In my humble opinion this is one of the most underrated and unappreciated games to come out of Hasbro/Wizards of the Coast. You have to love a war game that starts and finishes in under 3 hours yet gives you the full bodied feel of games that historically go 6+ hours. I have read a great many reviews on this game and the complaints are justified from a design perspective but gaming isn’t always about pure balance and I find it outrageous that reviewers & boardgamegeek ratings find fault with Conquest of Nerath (rated 1037 on BBG) but give similar games like Runewars (rated 100 on BBG) a pass. Are you fucking kidding, Runewars is outright broken as fuck, it is a complete failure as a game, my mind is boggled! There is opinion and there is objective and responsible reviewing, and in this case it’s a complete injustice, Conquest of Nerath kicks the shit out of Runewars any day of the week and twice on Sunday!

Verdict: If you want a fantasy war game with Asymmetrical gameplay this is about as good as they come. It’s by no stretch of the imagination a flawless execution but if you go by BBG ratings and buy alternatives be ready to be horribly disappointed, this is THE premiere fantasy war game.

Galaxy Trucker (2007 Czech Games Edition)

Designer: Vladda “Never Fails” Chvatil

Ok I will say this upfront, Galaxy Trucker is not a serious game and the normal rules for reviewing a board game simply do not apply. It’s not fair, it’s not balanced, it is random and by traditional definitions it’s barely a game. Despite all that, if you have a sense of humor and good group of friends who don’t mind playing a game just for shits and giggles it creates, look no further. Galaxy Trucker is a silly exercise in futility which simply challenges you to get stupidly lucky enough to survive it. Yet despite it all, if you play it enough you will actually find that there is some element of control, it’s definitely an illusion, but clever folk will win this game more often than not. In the end it’s just good clean fun and what is a board game night about if not laughing your ass off at your friends as they fail miserably at the hands of the gods of dice. I have and always will love Galaxy Trucker for the countless memorable nights it has created in my gaming group and there is absolutely no question that there should be room in your collection for this one. If you don’t like Galaxy Trucker, you probably want to re-evaluate your life and your friends, just saying.

Verdict: A classic romp of silliness that will, assuming you have a pulse and a sense of humor liven up any board game night, grumpy Euro gamers stay as far away from this one as possible.

Game of Thrones The Card Game 2nd Edition (2015 by Fantasy Flight Games)

Designer: Nate French, Eric M. Lang

game of thrones

Game of Thrones the card game is frustratingly perfect, it’s the only way I know how to describe it. It is a serious game in my opinion, one that will have you trying to read people’s mind, raise you out of your chair in frustration and give you nightmares while simultaneously challenging you to your wits end. This is not a game for everyone, it really is complex, not in the sense of rules but depth of play, a game that inspires a tremendous amount of thought and will have your head spinning before, during and after you play. This really was THE game of the weekend in my opinion, a game that drew out everyone’s best effort. It really does help a great deal if you are a Game of Thrones fan, without that backdrop while I think it would still be a hit with most card game fans, many of the moments of the game probably won’t have the same flare. This game is dripping with theme, for a fan, you might want to buy the cards even if you don’t ever play the game because the art is that damn good.

Verdict: If you (a serious gamer) and especially if you are a Game of Thrones fan and play/buy only one game this year, this most defiantly should be that game. Game of Thrones the card game (2nd edition) is a masterpiece. Lightweights need not apply.

Shadows over Camelot (2005 by Days of Wonders)

Designer: Cyrille Daujean, Julien Delval


Shadows over Camelot on the surface is a cooperative, player vs. the game type of game with mechanics most hardened gamers might find almost oversimplified. There is a lot of randomness here but despite that if it were not for the potential of a betrayer this would be a fairly easy game to beat cooperatively. In the end though it really is about the betrayer and it’s really this secret player, real or imagined, that creates the atmosphere that catapults this game into a completely different gaming sphere.

Everyone at the table knows that if there is a betrayer he is going to nail them at the worst possible moment and so you spend as much time playing the game as you do trying to figure who in the end is going to screw you and it is this simple twist that pulls this game out of the yawn it would be otherwise and into a fun and mostly paranoid experience.

I think the great thing about Camelot is that it’s so simple mechanically that it really lives in the realm of every day family games. This really is something even mom and dad could play as an alternative to the drudgery of traditional Monopoly-infused boredom. Yet there is sufficient weight here for proper gamers and we experienced that to its fullest this weekend where Camelot really shined as a highlight of the weekend creating a memorable betrayer reveal in the final tense moments of the game. Quick, easy to learn yet creates an atmosphere of anxiety and stress that is just right for gamers of all walks of life.

Verdict: A great game for a gamer’s collection to pull out as an alternative to traditional family/dinner party games that is certain to be a hit yet with sufficient weight to get table time with board game fanatics.

Archipelago (2012 by Asmodee Games)

Designer: Vincent Boulanger, Imsael Pommaz, Chris Quilliams


I had very high hopes for Archipelago this weekend, my group and I have talked about it many times and it’s something I put up on my shelf largely after high recommendation from reviewers like Shut up and Sit Down which I respect greatly. In the end though this really was a moderate disappointment that landed pretty flat with me.

While there are plenty of salvageable mechanics and interesting concepts, this thematically edgy worker placement game was simultaneously fiddly, visually bi-polar with unpredictable winning conditions and really disappointing player interaction. Every mechanic had either an “it’s almost good” feel to it, was marred by oddly misshapen components, strange unnatural rules or bizarrely heavy handed special powers. It was always uncertain who was actually winning, the game ending conditions ranged from “never going to happen” to “It WILL happen in round X, a prediction you can make in round 1”. It was just very odd and didn’t play out at all as described by the reviewers who’s recommendation led me to the purchase. Now I will say that I think we probably got several of the rules wrong, despite me doing several test plays well in advance and that likely contributed to my confusion and disappointment. Still it just didn’t have the result I was looking and hoping for.

I do believe this game deserves a second chance though, I think as a group we really weren’t sure exactly how we should interact, whether the game was truly cooperative, or competitive and exactly how it is you actually find a route to victory here. I don’t think it was a bad game and I honestly feel compelled to play it again because I have this nagging feeling that as a group we really just missed it but for us after all the great and memorable games we had played to this point over the weekend this one really stood out as the big dud.

Verdict:  Uncertain, definitely deserves a second chance but first impressions are not great.

Pillars of the Earth (2006 by lots of people including Kosmos)

I love it when game designers understand that game pieces can be functional and cool at the same time.  The use of a cathedral made out of wooden blocks to act as a turn counter is thematic and fun.

Designer: Michael Rieneck, Stefan Stadler

For me personally, Pillars of the Earth is THE definitive worker placement game in terms of classic, solidified Euro gaming that actually caters to human beings without the need for a calculator. Ok, perhaps that’s mean but most Euro worker placement games I just find dreadfully boring. While Pillars of the Earth’s subject matter is not exactly awe inspiring, there is something about it’s simple and fast paced gameplay that speaks to me. It’s a thinky strategy game with just enough luck to mix things up but not so much that clever players can’t get a hold of the reigns and win it.

I think most of the gaming group enjoyed the game “sufficiently” and It did create one of the most hysterical one liners of the weekend which I won’t repeat as pretty much everything that happened this weekend most would consider horribly offensive but I don’t think this is what most of my gaming group would consider “Their bag”. They humored me and I appreciated it because I really do think this is a little hidden gem, one I will happily play anytime.

Verdict:  A classic, its as simple as that.  If you are new to the hobby, this is a good place to start your education and a game that will remain in your collection indefinitely.

Dead of Winter (2014 by Plaid Hat Games)

Designer: Jonathan Gilmour, Isaac Vega

dead of winter

Amidst a theme that is so played out that it can basically fuck off, Dead of Winter puts a spin on Zombie survival that has not only made it a house hold name among gamers everywhere, but was the only game of our big gaming weekend that was demanded a second time!

Dead of Winter has the same thing going for it that Camelot does, but in my humble opinion does it 10 times better while maintaining the same mechanical simplicity that a casual gamer can instantly pick up. It’s the Betrayer tension, that’s where it’s at, but in Dead of Winter the betrayer has to be clever because not only does he have to ensure everyone loses, he must first complete his own mission, which is hard, really really hard. He needs the survivors at the start of the game as much as they need him so he is initially motivated to actually help the players survive. More than that though I think in big part the game itself is actually very difficult in its own right so there is a good chance that even with everyone helping, betrayer included you will still lose the game and I love that aspect of it. I also really love the fact that there is the group victory, aka beating the game and the motivating push of trying to accomplish your own personal objective. So you not only have the betrayer screwing the colony but potentially even the players that are supposed to be ensuring its survival as they greedily try to complete their own missions. Fantastic concept for the win!

I recall the first couple of times I played this game I thought it was ok, it didn’t blow me away or anything but after this weekend I have joined the ranks of pretty much everyone else in endorsing this one. It really is as fantastic as everyone says it is and after the first game we played I found myself being the eager beaver shouting out “again.. again…!”

Verdict: If you like cooperative games with betrayers, this really is THE game for it. The theme may be played out but the writing and mechanics for this game are so good it just blows everything else out there out of the water.

Lords of Water Deep (with Scoundrels of Skullport) (2012 Wizards of the Coast)

Designer: Peter Lee, Rodney Thompson


Lords of Water Deep is a worker placement game and in a sense very much a traditional one with the caveat that there are plenty of take that mechanics and theme to bring it into the realm of Ameri-Trash games. The truth is the lines are blurred and who really gives a crap about those labels anyway. The only question is, is it a good game and the answer is a resounding yes as long as you use the expansion. I recall playing this game a couple of times without the expansion and frankly it’s a fairly dull affair. Those corruption mechanics, the cards, buildings and worker placement spots that it brings give this game a second life.

I have played a lot of Lords of Waterdeep, it really is a kind of staple game for our group and I’m certain it would have landed a bit better if it wasn’t played at the tail end of a very long gaming weekend but to me the game has lost some of its spit shine. I think it’s mostly from simply having played it so many times which is not to say I don’t think it’s a fantastic game, because I really do think it is, it just doesn’t rank that terribly high on my must play list anymore in a backdrop of the 30+ games sitting on my shelf. I think if you like worker placement games, this is an absolute must own with the caveat again that you have the expansion which I think is absolutely mandatory. There is plenty of depth and tension, the intrigue cards really add a lot to the game and unlike most worker placement games it actually has a theme that comes to life in the game. Great game but came a bit late in the weekend and might be a bit played out for me.

Verdict: A classic must own worker placement game if you’re a fan of the mechanic, Scoundrels of Skullport is an absolute must own expansion.