Saturday, December 31, 2011

Print Cover for In Harm's Way: Pigboats

Here's my current candidate for the print cover for Pigboats. Comments are very welcome!

In Harm's Way: Pigboats Playtest Session 10

This session started out with working up to Will Montgomery's wedding, and ended up in the Yellow Sea.

Lamarr had arranged with his friend - Mrs. Lockwood, the Admiral's wife - to have the ceremony at the garden of the Admiral's house. He hoped that might impress Amanda's mother, and ease some of the pressure her mother was putting on her. Will went to collect them for the rehearsal, and saw an envelope on the hallway table addressed to Amanda from Bo Larsen, her old boyfriend. While waiting for the women, he lifted the envelope to the light and tried to read it through the envelope, but that didn't work too well. Despite being severely tempted to snatch the letter and read it later, he didn't and put it back on the table.

The women went with him in the Admiral's staff car out to the Admiral's house. Lamarr, talking costs over with Mrs. Lockwood, determined that getting the rich Vanderbilt to pay for this wedding would a just compensation for his hideous practical joke the day before, and began scheming ways to make him foot the bill. Amanda's mother was subdued, awed by the Admiral's obvious blessing for the wedding, though it didn't make her like Will any more.

Back at the Coelocanth, Lamarr suggested to Will that they should make Nick Vanderbilt pay for his practical joke through his wallet. Will decided to use his skills learned in a bad childhood to sneak into Nick's room and steal the money. Will got into Vanderbilt's room with no problem, and began picking opening the lockbox in his footlocker. It wasn't easy, and by the time he had the lock picked and the lockbox opened, Will heard Vanderbilt in the corridor outside conversing with Beau Tambeaux. Sweating bullets, Will went through the contents - a bag of gold double eagles, a bag of dut diamonds, and four checkbooks with apparently over a million in each one. Will tore out a check from one of them, locked the lockbox back up, and put it back into the footlocker. He got up and bluffed his way through as Nick came in the doorway through the curtain.

Using the logbook, Will and Lamarr forged his signature on the check, made out to the caterer for the expenses, and sent it off to them. Later on, Lamarr confessed what they had done to Vanderbilt, who laughed it off, and said he would have been happy to pay for it., but next time, just ask.

After the wedding, and a short honeymoon on a dude ranch on the Big Island, Will returned to the ship walking bowlegged, having never ridden horses before. This was, of course the occasion for much ribald humor at his expense. Meanwhile, the skipper ordered Will to get a canary for each of the Torpedo Rooms, as they were carrying a partial load of wakeless Mark 18 electric torpedoes, which generated hydrogen when they were recharging. They had also mounted a new 5 inch deck gun aft to match the one forward.

The crew gathered and headed off to their new patrol area, the Yellow Sea between Korea (called Chosen at that time, and a part of Japan since the last century), Manchuria (Manchukuo, a Japanese puppet-state), and occupied China. The Yellow Sea is pretty shallow throughout, being filled with sediment from the huge rivers that drain into it.

The Coelocanth poked around in the middle of her patrol area for several days without a sniff of a convoy. The Skipper, perusing the maps, tried to figure out where the huge amount of traffic which should be going through the area was hiding. Making a Strategy check, he decided the traffic was running up between the mainland and the chain of steep-sided islands off the southern and western corner of Chosen, north of Quelpart Island. The water was fairly deep there for the Yellow Sea, and he ran the Coelocanth up between two islands where any convoy would have to run straight along across her bow, silhouetted against the cliffs.

A couple of nights later, they struck paydirt. A small convoy of two big tankers, at 10,000 and 7500 tons, a smaller tanker of 3000 tons, a big cargo ship of 9000 tons, and an enormous whale factory of 16,000 tons; all escorted by a pair of corvettes. First came a corvette, ahead and to the right, then the whale factory and the biggest tanker, followed by the small tanker, then the cargo ship and the third tanker, with the other corvette taking up the rear.

The Skipper ordered two electric fish each fired at the lead corvette and the whale factory, with two Mark 14Cs fired at the big tanker after a wait to make sure the faster Mark 14s hit at about the same time as the slower electrics. After all fish were away, he ordered a turn to starboard to line up his aft tubes at the rear of the convoy. Then the lead corvette vanished in an explosion, with simultaneous multiple hits on the whale factory and the tanker following quickly. As the trailing escort picked up speed and swung out towards where the Coelocanth had to be, the skipper ordered two electrics fired down her throat, with a second pair fired at the third tanker.

The whale factory and leading tanker were on fire and heavily damaged, and were only able to make about three knots each. The trailing escort also went up in an explosion from the second torpedo. Then the trailing tanker exploded and went down in a rush. This left only the small tanker and the big cargo ship able to maneuver at any speed. They began booking it out of the trap as the Coelocanth turned to port. Mr. Montgomery made a terrific success on his combat reload, getting four tubes ready to fire before the captain needed them. The skipper put a torpedo into the cargo ship and a pair into the small tanker, with the tanker exploding and the cargo ship damaged.

The Skipper ordered the two five inch deck guns manned, with the aft deck gun under Mr. Montgomery shooting at the whale factory and the big tanker, and the fore deck gun under Mr. Vanderbilt aiming for the cargo ship. With some excellent gunnery, The three ships were polished off, giving the Coelocanth the rare distinction of a clean sweep - an entire convoy sunk.

Meantime, Tokyo Rose began mentioning the Coelocanth in her nightly broadcasts, starting a war between her and the skipper. More on that later.


Friday, December 30, 2011

In Harm's Way: Pigboats Playtest Session 9

Session 9 began with the USS Coelocanth's crew at liberty for two weeks in Pearl. Mr. Montgomery went to see his girlfriend of two years, Amanda. Amanda originally was seeing Montgomery alternately with an Army Aviator named Bo Larsen, but had been going out only with Montgomery for the last year. Amanda informed Will that she was pregnant. He went out and bought a ring and proposed to her.

Now Amanda was a very sweet, pretty girl, but not too many lights on in the upper stories, so she said yes. Amanda's mother hated Will Montgomery with a great and consuming passion, and she tried to put her foot down, but Amanda was old enough to marry on her own, so a date was set.

Lamarr Bullock, the XO, decided to throw Will a bachelor party. He invited Will, Tom Wiggins, Nick Vanderbilt, and Beau Tambeaux out. They went to a swanky Italian restaurant and had a terrific meal, with various wines - Nick went on at length about each one - but Will was slipping deeper and deeper into depression. They left and got into the cab, and as they drove down to the the sub base, Will let slip that he thought there would be more to his bachelor party. The cab driver took a wrong turn and stopped at a dive where everyone got out.

The crew of the Coelocanth boiled out of the bar and pulled Will Montgomery in, followed by the other officers. They laid him down on his back, put a funnel in his mouth, and began pouring in drinks as the first stripper started dancing. I will leave the rest as an exercise for the student.

Early the next morning, the four officers poured out of the cab doors, followed by Nick Vanderbilt, who looked impeccable, as always. Interestingly, it wasn't at the Royal Hawaiian, where they were staying, but at the Coelocanth. An admiral paced back and forth. Will Montgomery collapsed at his feet, groaning.

"Gentlemen! The Coelocanth has been ordered out immediately on an important mission. Your Skipper, Commander Mardukas, will not get here in time, and Mr. Bullock will be the temporary commanding officer. Mr. Bullock, your orders." he hands a very surprised Lamarr a packet. "These are not to be opened until you are out of the harbor and on your way. As your own crew cannot be located in time, the Replacement crew will have to do. Good luck, Lieutenant Commander Bullock." Will puked over the admiral's shoes. the admiral was very upset.

They pulled away from the dock, the officers groaning and bitching, Will semi-comatose. As they left the Loch through the narrow entrance, Lt. Cmdr Bullock opened his orders. They said: "You have been had, courtesy of Lt. Nicolas Vanderbilt.


Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Resistance: Cross of Lorraine

This project looks very cool, and I want to bring it to your attention:

It's a game based on the French resistance in WWII. The author, Robert Oglodzinski, is trying to gain some traction in his effort to get the game development funded, but it's salmon time - upstream all the way - for an unaffiliated indie designer from Poland. He's done a hell of a job reaching out to folks - there's wikis and Q&A sites and all kinds of information flowing from him. I personally love the concept - hard, dangerous, and tense work, but with hope, so it's not misery tourism. I have hope he can pull this one off!


Friday, December 16, 2011

Submarine Novel Research Continued!

Today I will cover the five Periscope! novels.

The Periscope! Series

I figured Halsey Clark was a pseudonym before I read any of the series, but I found out from Google that "Halsey" is a common name with Clarks, and has been for some time before WWII. OTOH, the Halsey Clark of the Periscope! series is definitely a pseudonym, for at least four if not five different authors! This series was like a roller coaster...

Pacific Standoff

Set in the Pacific in 1943, Pacific Standoff was an excellent book! It was reminiscent of Harry Homewood's work - great characters, exciting situations, and well-written. This book can stand on its own with the best sub novels ever written. The hero is Jack McCrary, but several other side characters referred to or appearing in this book become main characters later in the series, like Jack's Cousin Bob DuToin, who comes aboard as PCO - or a Prospective Commanding Officer, a final bit of training before command - Jack's rival, the engineering genius Ben Mount, and Jack's sister Helen.

Deepwater Showdown

Set in the Atlantic and Mediterranean in Late 1944 until April 1945, this book follows Ben Mount, a Jewish submarine officer, who is shunted off to work with the Royal Navy, though he repeatedly applies for action in the Pacific. Ben works developing special weapons for the RN, though he occasionally gets temporary command of a British sub for special missions. New important characters are introduced - Moxie Mulford, a British sub commander who is close friends with Ben, and Betsy Kirkland, the love of his life and daughter of the admiral commanding of the sub force, a noted anti-semite. This is a solid novel, though not as good as the first, but be warned, this novel has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the series! The characters re-appear, but in later novels, Mount is in the Pacific or Washington while he is simultaneously somehow in Britain in this one. It's as if the roller coaster stopped, you got out and went onto another coaster, then went back and continued on the first coaster. Bizarre!

Depths of Danger

Set in the pacific in late 1944, this was a low point in the series. Jack and Helen McCrary, Ben Mount, and Bob DuToin all return, but there is little submarine action, and what there is of it is ridiculous and unreal. It's more an espionage story whose characters are involved with submarines. The characters are different than they were in the previous two novels, working for different motives. It was was OK, but not what I was waiting for. Mount is throughout supposed to be an engineering genius, but the only thing he actually invents is a way to mount an existing camera to a periscope to get high quality pictures for recon purposes. Helen McCrary is probably the star here. Where the first coaster had lots of corkstrews and dramatic drops and tight curves, this is a bunch of bunny hops.

Grand Finale

With the fourth installment we're back in a cracking submarine novel. This one is set in the Pacific in 1945, and brings together the McCrarys, Ben Mount, Betsy Kirkland, and Bob DuToin. This is almost as good as the first, and might have been written by the same person, but unlike the first novel, this novel's sub action is all closely based on real events, particularly that of Gene Fluckey and Barb and the big wolf pack sent into the Sea of Japan at the end of the war. The wolf pack boats were equipped with a new device, FM Sonar AKA Hell's Bells, to penetrate the vast mine fields sealing the sea off from the Pacific.


Now we go into the Land of Strange! Supersub is set from VE Day to the seventies, and concentrates on Ben Mount. This novel is just strangely written - I found it annoying - with abrupt changes of scene and again, no relation to the first four novels besides the names and relationships of the main characters. The editing was awful, and made me wonder if any of the other books were edited at all, and the differences were due to the quality of the writers. the whole things is told in flashback, with Ben Mount a thinly disguised Admiral Rickover. The stuff about nuclear subs is well realized - this guy knows nukes, and it shows - but it gave me headaches to read. The characters have almost nothing in common with their previous incarnations, changes in their personal lives are abrupt and senseless, and there is no real development. Avoid this one!

The whole thing reads like someone had a sketched out plan with no real timeline, no character studies beyond names and a couple sentences about their relationships, and sent it out to five different authors to write simultaneously. Each one went their own way, and while some were very good, and others competent, there was no overall tracking and reconciliation between them.


Monday, December 12, 2011

Too Many Notes, or the Fear of Skills

In the film Amadeus, there's a scene in which the Emperor criticizes Mozart's latest composition:

Emperor: "My dear young man, don't take it too hard. Your work is ingenious. It's quality work. And there are simply too many notes, that's all. Just cut a few and it will be perfect."

Mozart: "Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?"

I always think of this when I hear someone say - of my games or of anyone else's - "There are too many skills." What does this mean?

What I think it means is that the person saying this is afraid of having to learn a whole bunch of new limits and special cases. Understandable, perhaps. The classic way of defining skills is to describe the skill, list its benefits, then list what it is not, and what it doesn't apply to. This is what I call Definition by Boundary, or Edge Defined Skills. It is in effect a description of a special case by describing the limits to that case. Everything inside those limits is, therefore, the skill. In order to properly use the skill, one must know the applicable and non-applicable skills for each situation.

One way designers get around this is to use Professions as Skills. You were a shoemaker, so you know anything a shoemaker would know. You were a hunter, so you know what a hunter would know. This is nice, because the Professions are self-defining - whatever the profession, so long as you know what the Profession entails, common sense and group consensus tells you what would be applicable. It also has another benefit - it is overlapping. A Hunter has to know something about butchering an animal. So does a Butcher, and so does a Cook. Yet no one worries about that! A Cook doesn't know how to hunt, and a Butcher doesn't know how to cook, and a Hunter is not going to be nearly as good at Butchering an animal as a full-time Butcher. Common sense!

We can also define a Profession by the Skills the Profession uses - a Hunter uses knives and firearms, can track animals, can butcher them, is knowledgable about the weather, and can set snares. So we have the Hunter eligible to learn the skills Blades, Firearms, Tracking, Butchering, Weather, and Snares. Some Hunters are better than others at Firearms, some are better at Snares, some are better at Tracking, etc. This is what Skill Ranks are for. They don't just tell us what someone is good at, like Binary Skills or Professions, they also tell us how good they are. This differentiates one Hunter from another.

There is another way to define Skills than Definition by Boundary. This is Definition by Center. A Center Defines Skill is one which is self-defining, in which the name describes what it focuses on - the Firearms skill is about using Firearms. The Tracking skill is all about tracking creatures. The Snares skill is about setting traps. The edges are not described. Edge conditions are left up to common sense and group consensus.

What happens when you have two skills which are applicable in a situation? Say you have a broken firearm! Would you use Firearms or Repair to fix it? If your skills are overlapping, the answer is either one. Repair can fix most anything broken, but it doesn't automatically allow you to use Firearms to shoot a pistol. Firearms allows you to do most anything with a gun, but it doesn't automatically allow you to fix a car or a lamp. Why not? Common sense and group consensus. You no longer need to worry about memorizing special cases and limits, you just have to know in general what the Skill is about, and that should be in the name.

But why not have just a few skills? Define them broadly and from the center, and it shoud cover everything, right? Flavor. More Skills means more differentiation, more shading, more subtlety. Some games work great without a lot of subtlety, and some don't. Let the game itself tell you how subtle and flavorful you want these characters to be.

In effect, Center-Defined Skills are miniature Professions, and Professions are made up of these Skills. You can play any game which uses Skills by using Professions instead, if you prefer. just consider that listing of Skills to be a sort of definition of the Profession. The two concepts are mutually translatable.

There is no need to worry about how many notes are in the music, you can just relax and let the song flow.


Tuesday, December 6, 2011

IHW: Pigboats - Playtest Session 8

Last session ended with the Coelocanth two days southwest of the Bonins, with one Mark 14 reload forward and four Mark 10 fish left in the aft tubes. This session picked up where the last session left off, and veered quickly into Hollywood Thriller-land.

The Skipper ordered a course change towards Chichi-jima, on a hunch that small convoys might be using the harbor there as a stop-over on the way to and from Japan and the Marianas. Chichi-jima itself was protected by a big radar station - where Lt. j.g. George H. W. Bush would later earn the DFC as an aviator from the San Jacinto - and it was mostly avoided by subs. during the first night of the transit, RADAR picked up a small, single target dead ahead. The Skipper ordered the speed increased to catch up, and soon the OOD caught sight of the target, a submarine on the surface heading directly away from the Coelocanth, towards Chichi-jima.

In the moonlight, the OOD swore he saw a swastika on the conning tower fairwater of the sub ahead when the Skipper joined him on the bridge. Observing the boat, and making no effort to shoot or catch up, the Skipper confirmed this, and noted she also had a net cutter - a serrated, angled steel beam propped up on the rear end by two support beams - on the bow. A German U-boat, either out of the Indian Ocean, or all the way from the Atlantic, was right in front of them.

In spite of the fact that a single torpedo from the U-boat's stern tubes could easily sink the Coelocanth, the Skipper decided to follow the U-boat to wherever it led, a very dangerous course of action. The U-boat gave no sign that she knew she was being followed, and continued on course, as the Skipper ordered two large tasks from the crew - one from the Engineer, and one from the men. The Coelocanth was just in sight of the U-Boat in the darkness, and directly behind it, where the U-boats hydrophones could not hear her due to the sound of her own screws.

The Coelocanth followed the U-boat through the next day - both submerged, with the Coelocanth tracking the U-boat by hydrophones - and night. Still, the U-boat gave no sign of noticing her shadow - a series of really terrible rolls by the GM compounded by the night penalties and the inability to hear behind her - until the U-boat began transmitting just west of Chichi-jima a couple hours before dawn.

The Skipper was expecting this, and had the Signals Officer, Mr. Bullock, search the radio spectrum to find any plain language transmissions on low power. Mr. Bullock found the transmissions, and the Skipper listened in. Besides being fluent in Japanese, the Skipper was also fluent in German and Italian - the son of peripatetic linguists who taught all over the globe before the war, including Germany and Japan, and spoke many languages. The conversation was in German, and brief. After trading codewords, the sub was to await an escort into Chichi-jima's harbor just west of the island at dawn.

When the transmission ended, the Skipper ordered the Coelocanth to turn sideways to the U-boat, so that both the 5 inch gun on the fore deck and the 4 inch gun aft would bear. He then gave the order to the Weapons Officer, Mr. Mongomery, in front, and Mr. Bullock on the 4 inch gun, to fire. The two guns fired at the same time, both shells hitting the U-boat at the same moment, obliterating it.

The Skipper then ordered his two surprises - a false net cutter fashioned by the engineer to be mounted in the bow, and his new Kriegsmarine uniform and flag to be brought up from below. While he dressed, the flag was run up the SD RADAR mast. Lt. Wiggins was sent out to paint a swastika on the side of the fairwater - on his own, without orders, he painted over the Coelocanth's collection of Japanese Asahi and meatball flags, denoting her kills. Good thing that! It might be misunderstood by the Japanese! Wiggins was an artist in his spare time, and did a superb job with the painting.

The skipper was gambling that the Japanese could not tell an American sub from a U-boat after erecting the false net cutter. This was not an unreasonable gamble - Germany was half a world away, and had many different modles of submarine, like the Japanese, and US subs were almost never seen in broad daylight, and the form follows function of a sub's shape was pretty universal. Still, it was a hugely dangerous gamble perched on a knife-edge - but that was typical of the Skipper. In any case, at dawn, the Coelocanth in Kriegsmarine drag met a Japanese destroyer just west of Chichi-jima.

The Captain of the destroyer took the appearance of the Coelocanth in stride, and shouted "Follow me!" to the Skipper through a bullhorn. The destroyer preceeded the sub past a corvette and into the horn-shaped harbor of Chichi-jima. The destroyer anchored in the southern, wider part of the horn, while three small Japan-bound tankers huddled together in the sharp nothern tip. As the Coelocanth followed, the destroyer let down a small boat, which putted over to the sub, a junior officer guiding it. The Skipper, with Mr. Bullock in jeans and t-shirt beside him, left in the boat, and came onto the destroyer to meet with the Captain.

The conversation was in German, which the Captain pronounced badly and with a thick accent, and of which Mr. Bullock knew next to nothing. "You have the mercury?" asked the Captain. "Ja" replied the Skipper, thinking 'It's atill on the U-boat, under the ocean'. "And for me?" "We will load the mercury, then transfer the uranium when that is out of the way." state the Captain.

The Skipper knew he was in trouble. It only made sense to transfer the mercury first, as the sub had far less space to stow stuff than a destroyer. The Skipper bent on all his charm, and used Convince to argue that it would be simpler for him to load the uranium first, as the sub was so very delicately balanced. The Skipper won the argument and went back to the boat to bring her alongside the destroyer. The uranium was transferred in lead lined boxes, then the sub swung around and shot the destroyer with the single torpedo in her bow tube, and simultaneously fired three torpedoes at the tankers sinking one and damaging another.

BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM! the Coelocanth sped away toward the harbor mouth as the stricken destroyer tried to rush to battle stations and fire her guns. The Skipper fired her last torpedo in the aft tubes, and the destroyer went down in two pieces. The little corvette came on at the sub, but Mr. Montgomery at the 5 inch gun forward put two shells into his hull and sank him. The boat dove right outside the harbor mouth to avoid planes swarming up from the airfield, and headed for Pearl, all torpedoes expended.


Monday, December 5, 2011

IHW: Pigboats: What Is My Character really Doing When ...

This next bit is from a section of Pigboats called Extra Credit. In it I talk about things perhaps buried in the abstractions of the game. One part is called "What Is My Character Really Doing When..." which explains what is happening in the game world when a character does something - for example:

What Is My Character Really Doing When...
I make a periscope Observation check?

Your character is reaching down to grab the handles of the scope as soon as they clear the well. Snapping them down, you put your face into the hood, and rise with the scope in order to see as soon as the lens clears the surface, minimizing exposure time. If this is a non-shooting observation, you twirl all the way around once at the highest setting first, then again lower, then once more at the horizon in order to look for planes and ships before surfacing.

Getting the Range

If it’s a shooting observation, your assistant will turn the scope to the expected bearing, where the hydrophones or the plot says the target should be. You find the range by splitting the image with a device called the Stadimeter, and bringing the top of one image against the bottom of the other. Then the estimated height of the target is input into the system. This tells you the range by knowing the angle and the opposite side. You also estimate the target's "Angle on the Bow", the angle made by the target's bow to the viewpoint, for example a ship heading exactly asoss the scope from left to right would have an "Angle on the Bow" of port 90. A ship headed right to you would have an Angle on the Bow" of zero. The longer you leave your scope up, the better the chance the enemy will spot it.

Identifying Ships

You can give a decent shot at estimating the height of a ship’s masts because the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) has given you two books - ONI 221, which covers warships, and ONI 208-J, which covers Japanese merchant ships. These books use a classification method which uses the positions of funnels, deckhouses, turrets, masts, and other structures, and the shapes of bow and stern, to identify the class of ship, if not the actual ship itself. This will tell you the tonnage and masthead height.

Paths Not Taken

I was originally going to use the ONI books and make the PCs identify the ship class using them, but I didn’t want to either copy the whole books - they are public domain - or make the group purchase them, so abstracted the whole process.