'Barbarism is the natural state of mankind,' the borderer said, still staring somberly at the Cimmerian. 'Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.'

-Robert E. Howard
Beyond The Black River

Corrupt Cliffs

Corrupt Cliffs
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Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Why I think Zones Are Better Than Grids.

Over the last weekend, I again had the opportunity to play a game that used the more traditional grid-based system. It struck me that although it added the ability to more clearly move figures around and know "exactly" where each person was, it came at the cost of time.

Each time a character moved we needed to count the squares and try and determine the exact location we wanted to be. When casting spells with an area of effect, we needed to make sure the area was going to be what we wanted and count out carefully.

All of this additional time added up, and from where I was sitting slowed combat considerably. Combat should be an exciting time in the game, full of fun rolls and descriptions. We should not be seeking to slow it down. If I had any lingering doubts about zones before, they are pretty solidly gone now.

Instead of a battlemap composed of grids, zones break the map up into areas, let's see how that works in practice.

Basic Battlemap
Battlemap with Zones

Above we have two examples of the same map (From 2 minutetable top) described spatially. One with a grid where players can place a miniature on the map and move them in 5' increments. The other has the same map described with zones, where player miniatures are simply placed within a zone.

It is important to note that I have drawn the zones on largely for illustrative purposes, you could use a basic clean map and denote the zones through narration, small markers or just a small keymap. The zones don't need to be exactly delineated. We just need to know that a character is in the "Deep Stream" or on the "Rocky Incline"

Can you do much of what I am going to talk about with grids? Yes, you could, but I think zones are a simpler and more elegant way to accomplish it.

The first thing I think zones do are speed up movement in combat. You don't need to see if an opponent is 5 or 6 squares away. If you are both in the same zone you can engage them in combat, they are close enough to do so freely. Are they one zone over? Do you have a minor action available? You can also move to engage them easily. If a PC is at the bottom of the cliff and an opponent in the stream on the top of the cliff, you can fight. You don't need to count spaces. This in and of itself is a pretty big plus in my books.

What about terrain though? Surely the moving from the base of the cliff to the top of the cliff should impart some slow down. This brings us to another excellent thing about zones. They can each be made a little differently. Moving across the cliff zone might require an Athletics/Acrobatics test to move at full speed. It might even cause damage on a failed roll simulating fall damage. Essentially when a player is on that zone they are actively climbing up the cliff.

Some examples for the above battlemap written for Conan 2d20.
  • Rocky Incline - Steep incline - D2 Athletics/Acrobatics Hindrance. Incline plus loose rocks make the going difficult.
  • Skull - Cave entrance - 2cd Cover from missile weapons.
  • Steep Path - D1 - Athletics/Acrobatics Hindrance.
  • Path - Open ground, no penalty.
  • Cliff - D3 Athletics/Acrobatics Hazard for take 2cd damage on failure.
  • Stream - Flowing stream - current is stronger than it looks - D2 for all physical tests while in the zone.
  • Deep Stream - Flowing & Deep - D2 for all physical tests and D2 Athletics/Acrobatics Hindrance.
  • Path - Open ground, no penalty.

Now we have created a battlemap that has a lot of interesting things going on. Players may wish to try and fight on the open ground of the paths, but if they need to gain entrance to the skull cave, they are going to have to fight over some hindrances or hazards to get there. As I mentioned you could, of course, do similar with a standard grid battlemap. Not only do I feel the zoned approach is easier, I feel it lends itself to wanting those details more.

Finally, they are hugely abstract, they can represent whatever size you need, a large open field might represent a larger area on the table than the trees next to it. They might be player scale, or they might be army scale. Following on the abstract nature, you don't need your zone to specifically represent an actual 1:1 scale on the table, using a set of cards like RUNEHAMMER's ICRPG Graphic Index Cards or pictures of printed areas laid on the table you can quickly lay down easily identifiable and interesting zones for your players to interact with. If you need a set-up like the above you could grab a set of 8 index cards and write the name and details of each zone and just lay them out on the table.

And because of this abstract nature and ease of creating zones with a small card, you could lay out a complex area in a very small space, eliminating the need to carry around a large battlemap, you will just need something to represent players and enemies which fit inside the cards. Examples might be small chits or 15mm figures.

Lastly and this one may be a bit of a shock, I think think the abstraction of the exact position of a character within a zone is more realistic. Unless you subscribe to the idea that 1 roll of the die is the equivalent of one blow of the sword, keeping a character in a 5'x5' square is wholly unrealistic to me. The idea that combat is moving across and around the area is much more realistic to me. "The fight between the warrior and the bear rages in front of the skull cavern, the roar of the bear pushing the warrior back as he circles to find an opening on the massive beast" is descriptive of a battle occurring in a zone where the two combatants gain and lose ground and circle for the best place to strike from.

The downside is that players are a little more generic, in D&D you might have someone that can move 4 squares and another that can move 6 squares. With a zone-based system, each player is essentially moving the same distance. For me, though this negative is a very small one and is strongly outweighed by the positives. Similarly, other aspects of the game strongly tied to a location are lost such as an area of effect or flanking.

To sum up why I think Zones are superior to grids: They can save time in combat, they lend themselves to a more descriptive and interactive environment, their abstract nature allows more freedom of scale and I think it is a more realistic interpretation of the world.

Zones meet a nice middle point between the strict theatre of the mind and players measuring exactly where their miniatures move. They can speed up combat by eliminating exactly where everyone is. They can create rich and vibrant environments that are more interesting to play in. They can be scaled to fit the table size you have with minimal fuss. Creating their physical representation can be as simple as words on a card up to a full 3d layout.

If you haven't tried zones before in your games, I encourage you to give them a shot. If your system doesn't specifically include them a rough guideline is to allow players to engage and move within a zone freely, a normal move allows movement between zones and a sprint allows movement across 2 zones. You will need to give some consideration to how you handle area effects and flanking. Maybe you won't like them, or maybe your players won't and you'll go back to the grid. But just maybe you'll enjoy this new system free of range rulers and measuring.

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Thursday, July 11, 2019

Savage Sword of Conan: Issue #7 (2019) "The Gambler" Part One

Welcome back to Starships and Steel! I feel like all I do now is review comics! With the plethora of new titles (and old titles out there), they are taking a fair bit of my blog time up. I almost didn't even review SS7, which might be evident by that the review is out a day after the title was released. This review will be a little less spoiler free that what is usual. I am not going to fully discuss the story, but story layout and something I want to draw your attention to that occurs later in the story, that I feel must be said.

Writer: Jim Zubb
Artist: Patch Zircher
Colorist: Java Tartaglia
Letterer: VC's Travis Lanham
Cover Artist: Marco Checchetto

Cover Price: $3.99

The issue sits at 18 pages of actual comic content plus the serial prose by Scott Oden at the back. Although I don't review the prose, I encourage you all to flip to the back and have a read!

Starting with the cover of this book, we see a well-rendered piece of art. Conan sits at a table with a woman behind him, perhaps a witch or similar? Before him lies a table covered in gold, cards, and blood! Surely a great start, and compared to the original covers that simply paid homage to older covers and had nothing to do with the story, this one hits it out of the park. Even when I think the covers are more in line with the content of the book I feel like the artists are given a basic idea behind the issue and they go off and create it. We get a relevant image, but not an actual image from the story.

This image is completely different. The cover is a depiction of the story. The cards are in the story. The woman is in the story. This seems to be a home run. Clearly, Marco has been given a lot more direction than previous cover artists.

The interior art is likewise pretty well-executed, with some fun panels. Conan is well depicted as a young man, probably some of his first forays as a thief type character. The coloring is likewise well executed with it adding to the already lovely art. Shadows and light are both used effectively and the overall tone of the panels is excellent.

The book starts with promise. Conan comes across a man in Shadizar set upon by bandits. After being promised coin, Conan intervenes and we get a pretty cool fight scene over the next couple of pages. After this though we get several pages of pretty heavy dialogue between Conan and this denizen of Shadizar. We get more dialogue than we got combat. The next three pages are pretty dialogue-heavy and for me at least slowed down the pacing a lot. It is not what I have come to expect, and I can't say I really liked it.

Once we get past the overly wordy parts of the story, we move into the meat of the tale. We are shown a gem which I hope, plays into the tale later, as it is pretty much the only "weird" thing we see. I hope we see the woman on the cover be pivotal in the tale, and I ALSO hope she does turn out to be a witch of some description. That will all come later though, in the next parts of this tale.

We are also given a couple of pages of introduction to a gambling game. Yes, they take several panels to describe the rules of how the game is played. As it turns out this game is available as a print to play and will be made available commercially later in the year. If you follow me at all you know I am a pretty large supporter of new Conan games and merchandise. The more the merrier! Let us get Conan strongly back into the public eye! And with him Robert E Howard. I will further note that the cover as well depicts these cards, which explains why this cover is so different than every previous cover we have seen in the Marvel Conan run.

For me, this is simply product placement of their own stuff. I didn't like it. It felt overly detailed and out of place and frankly distracting from the pace of the story, yet again.




Sword & Sorcery:

And with that, this issue lands at 3 skulls.

There is plenty to enjoy in this book, but for me the story pacing and overt product placement took me out of the hyborian age. It also lacks sword and sorcery. It would have benefitted from less talk and less card game descriptions and more fighting.

I have seen plenty of reviews now saying Jim Zubb "gets it". He understands the Hyborian Age and the character. I won't say he doesn't, I see nothing to really indicate he is working in a vacuum or that he isn't a fan of the character, but I do find it puzzling that they think that Jim gets it and no one else in the Marvel run has yet. He may get it, but he doesn't get it any better than anyone else that has written in the short life of this character at Marvel who are also fans of Conan.

So while some people think this is the *BEST* that has come out so far, I have to disagree. For me, the only thing holding it up is the art and the potential. This book as a standalone falls pretty flat for me.

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Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Hawks of Outremer (2010)

I hope everyone in the US and Canada had good holiday weekends. Today i've got something a little different for you. A review of an older title. I learned about this book when the cover came across my Facebook feed through one of the many Conan groups I monitor. I initially thought it might be a new title, but as it turns out it was released in 2010 physically and in 2014 digitally.

Hawks of Outremer was published as a 4 part miniseries by BOOM! I picked it up on Comixology on Sunday to give it a read with my coffee. I picked it up as the compiled trade book.

Adaption: Michael Alan Nelson
Writer: Robert E Howard
Artist: Damian Couceiro
Colorist: Juan Manuel Tumburus
Letterer: Johhny Lowe
Cover Artist: Joe Jusko

Cover Price: $6.99
Pages: 90+

As usual, the cover of these books is the easiest place to start. Joe Jusko is maybe best known for his John Carter of Mars, Conan or Tarzan depictions. No matter how you know his work, it is generally of high quality. He is without a doubt one of the Masters of fantasy painting working today. These covers are good and fit the narratives well, although I am not sure they are Joe's best work. Whether it is or not they are all good and all evocative of the narrative found within the pages.

The 90 pages of panels and story drawn by Damian Couceiro and colored by Juan Manel Tumburus are excellent and fit the story being told quite well. From the small panels to the epic, from the mundane to the violent, this book does not disappoint.

I had not read the story by Robert E Howard when I picked up the comic, so all I had to go on was the comic itself. This means the comic got a fair shake regardless of what I thought of Howard's writing. In the end, I quite enjoyed the book and would recommend it to people interested in Howard, pulp fiction or action tales.

Arriving at the end of the book, which I devoured in a single sitting (100 comic pages doesn't take that long), I found an afterword by Mark Finn. I didn't read all of Mark's words, but he seemed to be suggesting this was a good adaption. He even makes the comment that Michael Alan Nelson had quite often used Howard's own words within the pages instead of trying to do it better. You can find the story online at Gutenberg and also in Del Rey's "Sword Woman and Other Historical Adventures".

I have since picked the story up and read a little of it to see how I felt it seemed to match and I can tell you the opening scenes are well done.

The story itself is a fairly straight forward tale of vengeance with a slight mystery about what is going on. It is an action-packed romp set against the crusades. On the surface, Cormac is similar to Conan. Both are forces of nature, skilled at combat and very definitely their own man. If we had more time to develop and explore the character I am sure we would see many, many differences between the two.

Normally I would talk about how well I think the story hits the Sword and Sorcery notes for me, but this isn't a sword and sorcery tale, it is historical fiction. So instead of the weird, we will talk of the mundane. The historical flavor of this piece is good. Crusaders and Moslems and the peace of Saladin. We have iron-clad men of Europe in battle against each other as well as the Moslems of the holy land. Besides the art lending the historical flavor of the setting, the use of actual places all lend to bring the reader into a time of European powers carving small kingdoms into the holy land.

Without further discussion, let's see how many skulls of my enemies I think the warrior of the grinning skull deserves!




Historical Flavor:

A solid 4.5 out 5 skulls!

I really liked this adaption. It felt good to me and was a fun read. I was happy to find it was a solid adaption of Howard's work. If you are a fan of Howard and haven't read Hawks, in either this form or in the prose form, I recommend getting out and finding a copy. If you use Comixology in the US, it is available under the Unlimited level.

One final note, after reading this tale I went and found a copy at AbeBooks at the Book Depository and ordered a physical copy of it.

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Friday, July 5, 2019

Riders of Steel and Silk and Gold: An adventure for Conan 2d20!

CONAN!? Why would I want to play "THAT!?"

Isn't "Conan" people running around wearing almost nothing, fighting and uh....doing other things? In this modern world, why would I want to play that? Aren't we just going to be rehashing an old tired stereotype that modern tales are avoiding now?

NO! That is NOT Conan, this is not the Hyborian Age. Or at least it's not Robert E Howard's Hyborian Age.

I fully understand why people might shy away from a Sword and Sorcery game and the aspects of it due to how it has been portrayed in popular culture as well as certain members of the fan base.

The name of Conan and Sword and Sorcery tend to be mixed strongly any number of images painted by the Legendary Frank Frazetta used as covers to a number of re-published stories. The good of this is to be associated with some excellent paintings by one of the modern masters of Fantasy. The bad of it is these images are often of men and women who are represented as the ideal male and female form, often with the man rescuing the woman, and neither of them wearing very much while this all occurs. As masterful as they are they can easily portray the male power fantasy idea which tends to turn a lot of people off.

This interpretation isn't really the truth of the Hyborian Age. Certainly, Howard described his heroic men as "masculine" and likewise his women, whether damsels in distress, or bad ass warriors, as "feminine", all through the lens of the 1930s.

Take the introduction of Valeria as an example.

She was tall, full-bosomed, and large-limbed, with compact shoulders. Her whole figure reflected an unusual strength, without detracting from the femininity of her appearance. She was all woman, in spite of her bearing and her garments. The latter were incongruous, in view of her present environs. Instead of a skirt she wore short, wide-legged silk breeches, which ceased a hand's breadth short of her knees, and were upheld by a wide silken sash worn as a girdle. Flaring-topped boots of soft leather came almost to her knees, and a low-necked, wide-collared, wide-sleeved silk shirt completed her costume. On one shapely hip she wore a straight double-edged sword, and on the other a long dirk. Her unruly golden hair, cut square at her shoulders, was confined by a band of crimson satin.

-Robert E Howard
Red Nails.

Howard clearly defines her as strong but as feminine as Conan is masculine, but she isn't scantily clad. She wears the standard fair of a pirate and carries with her a sword and dagger, and the will to use them.

That isn't to say Howard never wrote a scantily clad man or woman, he certainly did. He was after all writing for a magazine that wasn't viewed as "proper" in the 30s. I can guarantee though that I can find examples of stories that did way more of this than Howard ever did.

For my iteration of the Hyborian Age, I try and look through it as much as I can with my eyes firmly rooted in the modern age. What does that mean to the potential player?

  • Heroic Characters of many descriptions: Any Gender, Any Sexual Preference.
  • Character "relations" are always off screen if they occur at all. Romantic connections are generally not a huge thing due to the shortness of the adventure.
  • Races portrayed as culturally different, but not inferior.
  • Avoiding the hypersexualized imagery of Frazetta.
  • Avoiding the popular image of the D&D Barbarian.
  • High Action.
  • Sword and Sorcery. No fireballs, no goblins.
  • The goal to create a game and an environment that is fun and engaging for a diverse group of people that I have never met before.
  • The use of X cards to support the above.

If you are turning away from CONAN as an idea I encourage you to take a look at the original works, keeping in mind they are written in a different time. Howard's work on fantasy is groundbreaking, he is truly one of the influencers of modern fantasy and is credited as the father of Sword and Sorcery.

Riders of Steel and Silk and Gold

Hopefully, you are convinced enough to give the genre and setting a shot. Either because of the above ideas, or because of your interest in Conan or your desire to try 2d20. Either way you made it this far!

Convention: RPG ALLIANCE CON 2019
When: October 20, 2019
Where: Calgary
Player Experience Required: NONE
Number of players: 5
Pre-generated characters: YES
Years I've been playing Conan 2d20: 2.5
Convention games I have run in the past: 3 (RPG Alliance and Calgary Expo)

He was taken to the East, a GREAT prize! Where the war masters would teach him the deepest secrets! Join me and a host of brave souls as we venture back to the Hyborian Age of Robert E Howard. On the Northern Borders of Khitai a bloody dance has taken place since time immemorial. Each year the warlords of Hyrkania push into the northern reaches of Khitai raiding and taking what they believe is theirs. Each year the Generals of Khitai work their political games to pit one warlord against the other to hold the power of the steppe at a manageable level. All that is changing with the rise of a single great warrior king on the steppe. His charisma and intelligence have bound many of the tribes under his banner and his horde stands ready to push deeper into Khitai than ever before.

Now, as the invasion grows near, the Khan's Shamans have told him about an ancient fortress said to hold a weapon of immeasurable power. Something said to be able to surely turn the tide against the Khitai.

Your group is some of the Khan's greatest and most trusted warriors, sent to recover the weapon. After weeks of hard travel into the mountains, you have made camp on a small stone plain flanked by rocks and boulders, the wind howls across the land bringing the first touches of winter. Dominating the scene is a square opening, that seems hewn into the living rock of the mountain itself.