Friday, 20 April 2018

Battle Masters

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

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

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

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

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

Battle Masters 

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

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

Battle Masters: Pocket Edition
Work in Progress

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

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

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

Battle Masters Pocket Edition Token

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

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

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

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

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

Battle Masters Scenario 1:
Battle of the Borderlands

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

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

Useful links:

Monday, 9 April 2018

Sorcery: JIG and the Story of Hok Lee

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

 John Blanche | The Sorcery Spellbook (1983)

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

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

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

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Kosmostrom: Synthicide Edition

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

What is Synthicide?

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


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

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

Synthicide Adventuring Party

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

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

Why a Synthecide Edition of Kosmonström?

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

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

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

Small Cargo Storage Facility

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

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

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

[ZHU] Industries
 Kosmoström: Synthicide Edition

Kosmonström Synthecide Edition is avaliable now from DriveThruRPG,

Synthicide RPG from DrivethruRPG and print editions from

Friday, 9 March 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Half Orc | Fineliners on Brisol Bboard.

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


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

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

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

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



Games Sesh have produced a series of T-shirts.

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

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Kosmostrom is Go!

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

Kosmoström Set One (cover)
Kosmoström Sample Layouts:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

Visual Language

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

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

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

Kosmoström design references

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

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

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

Kosmoström element references:

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

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

Kosmoström on DTRPG

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

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Megablast on Precinct 13