Fantasy skirmish games: SoBH, Frostgrave and Dragon Rampant

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Fantasy skirmish games: SoBH, Frostgrave and Dragon Rampant

Post  PeterT on October 26th 2015, 09:15

When, getting on for 20 years ago, I got back into buying figures one of my first purchases was some 28mm Ral Partha fantasy figures. In my (very) dim and distant youth I'd been a keen Dungeons & Dragons player and Ral Partha were the premium quality figures at the time (being considered even better than Citizen -now GW), so getting my hands on a set of these figures was a bit of long frustrated wish fulfilment and I vaguely thought I might get my then infant daughters interested in playing a 'family game' of D&D when they were older - which naturally never happened!!!

I got about 2/3s painted and added some Warhammer figures and Mage Knight plastics at a later stage, but never really purchased any one army on a scale sufficient for a Warhammer army, so these figures have sat at the back of the cupboard for a very long time, and any 'itch' for fantasy gaming I've channelled into Lord of the Rings gaming. In the last 18 months or so I've been looking for some way to get them on the table and reading up on rules out there. It seems I'm not the only person out there with a bunch of mixed Fantasy figures in the back of their cupboard because there has been a trickle of rulesets coming out which all emphasise they are designed for putting together skirmish games with any fantasy figures you have already. The first I looked at was a set called 'Songs and Blades and Heroes' from Ganesha Games. These are a very small scale skirmish set, with warbands built from as few as half a dozen figures. If you have never played a game with 'activation' rules before they are probably a revelation - the basic mechanism being you attempt to activate each figure in your warband. If you attempt a simple single action you are more likely to succeed and can then attempt to activate another figure, but you can also attempt a more ambitious multiple action (like charging at double speed to try to hack your opponent's heroes head off or attack several figures at once) but the chances of you failing activation and losing the initiative are higher. People who've only ever played GW rules might be I impressed by this, but I've played lots of rules with 'activation' systems, so they weren't a revelation! I was a little put off by these rules by the fact that the basic combat system was so simple-and all explained in a free downloadable 'lite' version of the rules-and the core rulebook had only two magic spells in it (wow!)-though there is a number of supplements with more-so all I could see I was getting in the core rule book as a list of a couple of dozen 'special abilities' like ''Marksman' (bonus for shooting), 'Woodsman' (no movement for moving through woods). The rules are probably fun to play and are fairly cheap but couldn't work up the enthusiasm to buy them.

Next up was a set of rules that came out about 6 months ago published by Osprey called 'Frostgrave'. Clearly inspired by GW's Mordheim, these again are a small scale skirmish game, the basic idea is two or more parties of adventurers go into a ruined city (a frozen one just to make it clear this is in no way based on Mordheim which was destroyed by a comet) and they compete with other and against wandering monsters to try and find and drag treasure out of the city. The twist here is that the parties are always led by a wizard type and an apprentice with the party padded out with bodyguards and various other hangers on which are vaguely modelled on D&D types, like thieves, healers etc.. After an initiative roll one player moves their wizard and figures accompanying them, then other player does the same, then apprentices and their companions move, then all the rest of the figures which splits up the move sequence a bit without going the whole hog and employing an activation system. Combat system has hit points (so bit of record keeping but warbands are small) and uses a D20. If melee it is an opposed dice roll (i.e. highest wins), if missile you just shoot. Every figure has a defence value that you deduct from the other guys D20 roll, and if the attacker/winner rolls over the defence value they inflict the difference as damage points vs hit points, eg. if you roll 16 and the opponent's defence factor is 12 you score 4 damage. Different character types have difference defence values and combat bonuses, so the basic bodyguard is a 'thug' but a 'knight' has a higher defence value and an attack bonus etc.. As in Mordheim there is a bit of campaign progression, basically there is a check to see if members of the party who fall in combat, recover, are wounded or die, and you can spend gold to buy new hirelings for your party. The main progression though is for wizards and apprentices who level up, and indeed the big thing in these rules is magic with over 80 different spells divided into 12 schools of magic. So all in all a reasonably simple set of rules requiring as few as half a dozen figures per side with a bit of progression and lots of magic to sustain interest, a sort of competitive tabletop skirmish D&D 'lite'. North Star have put out a figure range, including some nice plastics, but the author is at pains to point out you can use any figures that you want to.

Finally there is 'Dragon Rampant' which is just about to come out and available on pre-order again published by Osprey. It seems fair to say that 'Dragon Rampant' stands in relation to the author Dan Mersey's 'Lion Rampant' rules, much like the 'Hordes of the Things' (HOTT) fantasy rules sit next to the now aged DBA ancient rules. That is to say basically the same thing with all the names changed, a few extra troop types and a few bolt on fantasy rules. As in HOTT, what Dan Mersey has gone for is creating a number of generic troop types so players are free to use their imagination to build any fantasy army they like, though there are some example armies for guidance and the unimaginative. A lot of the troop types are Lion Rampant troop types with the names changed (on his blog Dan is straight up about this) to more 'generic' classifications, so Mounted Men at Arms become elite cavalry, Foot Sergeants become 'Heavy Foot' etc.. There only seem to be two troop types added for this Fantasy version, Greater Warbeast(s) and Lesser Warbeast(s). One twist is where as Lion Rampant specified all units must have 6 or 12 figures, they now have 6 or 12 strength points and could be represented by a 'reduced figure' unit ie. fewer normally bigger, more heroic or nastier heroes/creatures or even a single model. The only difference is with the standard units you remove figures as per usual, but with the reduced or single model units you need to record strength points (eg. Using a small dice for strength points lost). So a unit of Elite Foot could be represented by 6 armoured warrior types as in Lion Rampant, or say 2/3 large Beastmen types or more heroic looking figures (with 2/3 SPs each) or a single Giant Model or powerful hero (with 6 SPs). Net result, it looks different to Lion Rampant but is essentially the same game. The main difference seems to be a list of 'Fantastical Abilities' which you can pay points to add to your troop types, stuff like 'Firebreathing', 'Fly', 'Undead' etc., so you can take your generic 'Greater War Beast' and turn them into a Dragon, or 'Elite Cavalry' and give them Pegasus mounts, or your basic cannon fodder troop types ('Serfs' in Lion Rampant, 'Ravenous Hordes' in Dragon Rampant) have special rules so can be used as skeletons or zombies, and act accordingly. Lion Rampant was Osprey Games surprise hit of 2014/15 selling more copies than any other Osprey title, and GW has just taking the momentous step of deciding not to support its longest selling set of rules 'Warhammer Fantasy' any more, and instead wants to re-work and remarket it as a skirmish game that uses sky-high priced figures. So it is not hard to see that Dan Mersey and Osprey have jumped in to try and repeat the Lion Rampant success with so many Warhammer Players cast adrift and milling around like zombies suddenly finding the 'Mothership' doesn't want to sell them yet another version of the same rules, army book, Codex or whatever. So given that Lion Rampant itself already includes several suggested retinue lists for Fantasy armies, and essentially Dragon Rampant is saying these are the guidelines go figure any army list you want, are they worth buying? Well what swings me is that 1. Lion Rampant are an absolutely cracking set of rules, simple yet subtle, with actually a lot more troop types hidden away in the 'upgrades' giving you lots of extendiblity 2. The Lion Rampant rules sit on the cusp of 'skirmish' and larger scale wargaming, and although designed for skirmishing, the same mechanisms work well enough if you want to have your figures represent say 1:10 troop scale rather than 1:1 3. These Osprey rulesets are not expensive, as you can pick them up for about a tenner, and I personally thought Lion Rampant was excellent value, not only being well produced, but absolutely packed to the gunnels with great scenario suggestions, sample retinue lists, extra rules like 'glory points' and 'boasts', which combined with a clear exposition of the rules made it excellent value. Which inclines me to think at I'm likely to be positively surprised with Dragon Rampant if I get it. You can read more about it here:

http://merseybooks.blogspot.co.uk

To be perfectly honest none of the rulesets exactly fit what I personally would like from a Fantasy set. I've actually played wargames using D&D rules and apart from tracking all the hit points found they worked pretty well. I also sat down and came up with what I think would be a just as good 'mash up' of Lion Rampant style activation system with a GW Fantasy style combat system, with the idea of a 'bonus pool' of hero 'points rolled each turn that could be used for leadership, heroic combat bonuses or magic, that I quite liked. But play testing them and ironing out the wrinkles, writing up things like monster profiles and spell lists could make it a longer task than getting an 'off-the shelf' set of rules, which have the advantage of making it much easier to agree things with opponents.

As you can probably tell I've spent a fair amount of time reading up in these rules and trying to work out their mechanisms so thought I'd pass it on as a sort of review. I think all three rulesets probably give a good fun games (provided that you get the SoBH's supplements with the extra spells in them). All have fairly simple mechanisms.

I'll probably get the two books by Osprey, and get around to painting up any extra figures I need in the next few months , and although I don't intend to get permenantly distracted from historic gaming, I thought I'd chuck this on the forum for anyone who was looking for something to do with any old fantasy figures, Warhammer figures or even Lord of the Rings figures or Dark Age/Medieval/Ancient which can all be used with any of these rules.

Pete


P.S. Anyone that is partial to a nice looking fantasy figure and does not want to pay the earth for them should check out the Reaper Bones figures if they haven't already. Funded with a couple of Kickstarters this range of figures in hard plastic puts in your hot and sweaty hands for one or two quid a plastic version of the Reaper figures normally sold for £5-7 per figure. Still expensive compared to historic figures, Reaper have had some of the best sculptors in the business produce Fantasy and Sci-Fi figures for them, so they have always been able to command a premium price. A lot of the plastic Mage Knight figures were also in fact made with Ral Partha sculpts, and WizKidz Dungeon and Dragons plastic ranges also puts out a lot of figures that can be repainted and would cost an arm and a leg in metal.

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Nice review Pete

Post  Lee Newton on November 17th 2015, 19:53

I can feel your anguish of finding the 'right' set of rules and not quite being convinced you have. I read it and couldn't help think - why not use AD&D rules? All the spells you can eat - good level of detail and fewer arguments on points if detail compared with a 'mash-up'? Or is it too clunky? It's been a while since I did AD&D. I seem to recall that my mates and I used the 'crit' tables from Middle Earth Roleplaying (a version of Rolemaster) when you rolled a 20 or a 1 for an extra bit of mindless gore or fine detail depending on your viewpoint. 'Opponent explodes in a fountain of liver' - think that was a made up one but it sticks in my mind.

Count me in for play testing - or maybe just do some RPG? Second Wednesday in the month us RPG night maybe?

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Re: Fantasy skirmish games: SoBH, Frostgrave and Dragon Rampant

Post  PeterT on November 18th 2015, 08:29

The only issue I have with using D&D rules is the hassle of recording hit points, which is not a problem as long as you are dealing with half a dozen to a dozen figures a side (which is the sort of size of forces envisioned by SoBH and Frostgrave, Frostgrave using hit points anyway), but can get a bit cumbersome if you move up to several dozen figures per side.

Actually been reading a few more blog reports on SoBHs recently and accounts do sound quite fun, though it seems pitched at the 'and your kids can play too' level of complexity (actually that might be my level by my second beer!).

On my book shelf I still have a large rule book called 'Chivalry and Sorcery' which came out in the 1970s marketed as a much more 'realistic/complicated' Fantasy/Medieval RPG ruleset not long after the original three book D&D had come out, and well before D&D became AD&D. Combat system was much more involved than D&D and involved multiple blows, dodges, parries, damage to 'fatigue' and 'body', as well as critical hits which would also be affected by what armour you had where eg. type of helmet gave different armour saves versus head wounds. All done with percentage dice and D20. Included in the several hundred page rulebook (published at a time when each D&D book was probably only 30 pages long) was a set of mass battle rules broadly based on the then popular WRG Ancients Rules and a full set of siege rules. A bit 'headachey' trying to get your head around them at first, but not so bad when you got used to them. Naturally small scale rules are even more hardwork than D&D if you get above a dozen figures per side.

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Finding a balance

Post  Lee Newton on November 18th 2015, 09:57

It's tricky getting detail without it getting slow and tedious. Middle Earth Roleplaying (MERP) and Rolemaster both published by ICE were beautifully detailed in combat scenarios but once you got above 3 players became a major ball-ache.

"Roll dice, work out if hit, work out if hit caused damage, roll damage, did it cause a crit?, roll fir crit, look up crit, relay crit to player - next!"

AD&D was too much the other way 4 hits - oh you're dead - anyone got a resurrection spell?

Ah, the fun of Sunday roast cooked by dad then mates around to kill small creatures in dark caverns - and I wondered why I didn't have a girlfriend till I was 19 lol

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Re: Fantasy skirmish games: SoBH, Frostgrave and Dragon Rampant

Post  Chrissy Boy on November 19th 2015, 13:24

Pete. Did you consider and older version of warhammer. During the mid 80's, Games Workshop released Blood bath at orcs drift and Mcdeath (and Terror of the lichmaster!?). These were more skirmishy games that used 2nd edition warhammer. From what I remember it had more monster types in it, and the army book had all the different races in it instead of being split out over many books.
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Re: Fantasy skirmish games: SoBH, Frostgrave and Dragon Rampant

Post  PeterT on November 19th 2015, 20:39

I gave up gaming for almost 20 years in the early 80s so missed out on early Warhammer. Got 6th edition rules which have a skirmish adaptation of the rules in the back as well as basic stats at least on most of the different troop types and creatures. (I've got various other supplements on PDFs, but not the one you mentioned).

I actually think Warhammers basic combat system is a good and robust one which you can use just as easily for skirmishing as massed battles, and obviously lots of stats for all the different troop types and creatures are all there. As I mentioned I was basically thinking of nicking them, and the magic rules for my own rules.

One thing WH lacks is an activation system being all based on 'I go, you go' and I particularly like the one in Lion Rampant (if you've not played it each unit needs to be activated and there are different scores needed on a 2d6 to activate them based on the troop type and what they are trying to do, ie. Move, shoot or 'attack' ie. Charge). As well as randomising who moves when, it gives the different troop types different characteristics, eg. Knights like charging, but can be buggers to get to make an ordinary move being haughty bastards. Sergeants take move orders more easily, crossbowmen are very effective when they shoot but their slower rate of fire than bowmen is reflected in a higher score needed to shoot etc.etc.. I also like how they have different to hit values depending on if they are are attacking or are defending (ie. have been attacked). Having this sort of activation system also suggests various magic spells based around improving different types of activation (or making your enemies activations more difficult).

To combine a Warhammer combat system with a Lion Rampant style activation system isn't too difficult. One thing I wanted for my own rules was to make Heroes more important so I also had the idea of having a dice pool for each hero which could be used for leadership (ie.improving activation or morale rolls of the troops under their command) or as bonuses in personal combat.

I've also kind of decided I like the idea of at least a mini-campaign so want quick battles so several games could be played in a night, so there is a bit of narrative to the game, eg. there is a quest to complete, or different 'tribal' groups are trying to take over an area or something. I probably need to put a bit of thought into how that might work.

If you have any copies of the supplements that you mentioned I'd be interested in seeing them.

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Re: Fantasy skirmish games: SoBH, Frostgrave and Dragon Rampant

Post  Andy_D on December 9th 2015, 17:25

I wouldn't mind taking a crack at either Dragon Rampant or Frostgrave. The former is probably easier to just pick up and run with as it's more generic.
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Re: Fantasy skirmish games: SoBH, Frostgrave and Dragon Rampant

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