Wednesday 1 January 2020

This year I have mostly been playing...

Lots of my tabletop gaming friends have been blogging their gaming year in review and whilst I didn’t consider it, Chris ‘Dirk the Dice’ Hart of the Grognard Files asked if I was going to and I thought perhaps I might, even if it’s just a cathartic exercise for my own benefit.

I started the year playing Mutants and Masterminds and I did not like it. It was mostly my fault.

After DMing D&D5 for a year at my local club I decided to take a break and play for a bit. The only game not booked up before it was even advertised was M&M being run by one of my previous players. The other players from my previous group, also having nothing else to sign up for also joined the M&M group.

The GM had created a really quite fantastical setting that weirdly felt disappointingly mundane when we interacted with it. He kept having his villains escape and return which is admittedly very much in the vein of comic books but made the process of taking them down feel utterly pointless and futile. Combined with things like putting a sprawling, complex map of a villain’s lair on the table and then locking every door and having nothing of interest behind them once they were forcibly unlocked.

However, that said, I might have enjoyed the experience more had I not railed against the idea of superheroes and created a thoroughly miserable anti-hero which I instantly disliked playing. That was stupid and childish on my part and I have to own that one.

I should have said that this isn’t for me and left but I felt really bad for the GM. It would have felt like a personal insult. This was compounded by the fact that the other players did leave, almost immediately. It then turned out that it was intended to run over two blocks, so six months. I could have cried when I found out but still couldn’t bring myself to leave because I felt like the GM, despite his failings, had put his heart and soul into it and I would have felt awful.

So we plodded on with two new players and the occasional rando. Needless to say, I was utterly relieved when it finally ended.

The system itself, I’m not keen on either. It’s horribly slow and clunky and the character sheet is bafflingly unintuitive. I had a list of powers with numbers but had no real concept of just how powerful they were. I just couldn’t get a handle on my character. Superhero games to me should be fast, frantic and cinematic. M&M most definitely is none of those things.

Conversely after this I then started running Call of Cthulhu at the club.

Sometime during the period of playing M&M it occured to me that I enjoy running games more than I do playing them and resolved from then on to keep my playing to one-shots rather than get involved in campaigns.

Also, my New Year’s Resolution for 2019 was to avoid buying new games and concentrate on playing the ones I already had. So, with this in mind I decided that the next couple of years would be spent working through my shelf either finally playing games I own for the first time or games that I’ve not played for decades.

First one out of the bag was Call of Cthulhu. I traded the Day of the Beast with Lee Carnell a couple of years ago, having been alerted to its existence by Ed in the Shed on the Grognard Files.

I decided to run this as my first game of this new period. It worked out brilliantly. It was a little nerve-wracking to start with. On the first session, I asked if anyone had played CoC before and one guy, without looking at me, pulled his shirt sleeve up to reveal a Chaosium Elder Sign.

This one tended to act all aloof and disinterested when we first started each session, giving me the distinct feeling that I, as a keeper of Arcane Law was being judged for my competence. Adorably, though, once we got into the meat of a session and the mystery kicked in, he seemed to forget his ‘too cool for school’ persona and got quite invested. He did drop out about half way through the first block citing work commitments but then, without saying a word seemed to join another group a few weeks later. This didn’t bother me. My CoC KoAL-ing style obviously wasn’t for him and that’s fine. Everyone else seemed to really enjoy it.

It became obvious at one point that there was no way the campaign was going to be wrapped up in one block (3 months) so I asked if everyone was okay carrying on into a second block and remembering the situation I’d been in earlier in the year made it absolutely clear that if folks wanted to move on there would be absolutely no hard feelings. To my delight, everyone stayed and we managed to wrap the campaign up just before Christmas. Despite my concerns early on, they were an absolutely great bunch and they are apparently staying with me for the next block starting in a couple of weeks which is Classic Traveller. I just hope they enjoy it as much.

The Day of the Beast campaign itself is great fun and a few people pointed out that it is very pulpy. Despite using CoC 5th edition rules, I did run it kind of pulpy and for the first half took it easy on the players worried that constantly cycling through characters due to death and madness might put them off. I regret it now because if anything, doing that might have actually spoiled their experience of CoC.

There were some jarring plot holes and some toe-curling railroading but it was always met with good-natured eye-rolling and grins and they set off after the plot like seasoned roleplayers.

I might be peaking too soon, but the second block is almost certainly my gaming highlight of the year. Bless them.

Commemorative 'coaster' I made for the players of the Day of the Beast campaign.

There were of course cons during the year. Being quite poor I have to limit my con attendance and even then, the two that I do attend have to be done so as cheaply as possible. This usually involves me driving up and back in a day to avoid hotel costs, taking sandwiches and only window shopping in the trade hall. Having to do it in a day prohibits a lot of northern cons, sadly and so I have to keep things southern. Two cons stand out in that depressingly short list and I attend them both: UK Games Expo and Owl Bear and Wizard Staff.

I’ve got UK Games Expo down to a fine art now. I know exactly what time to set off to get there in time for the morning RPG slot, I know exactly how long it takes to tour the trade hall, which means I know exactly what time to book my afternoon RPG slot for and what time I’ll be getting home that evening. Like clockwork.

This year the morning slot was a demo game of John Carter of Mars using the Modiphus 2D20 system. I have a love/hate relationship with 2D20 - or more accurately a like/hmmm relationship. There’s so much about it that I like but I can’t help feeling whenever I play it that it could probably be simpler and more streamlined. That said, as a player I find it perfectly playable and the session was good fun with a great bunch of players. It was quite railroaded but I don’t mind that so much with a con one-shot.

I then toured the trade halls in baking heat, meeting up at the FSide Games booth with a very sweaty and clearly suffering Carl Clare who kindly gave me a Flames of War starter set he no longer wanted.

Playing John Carter with Ian Cooper and Sintain and other fine folk
The afternoon session was a bucket lister. I finally got to play in a game run by Dirk the Dice from the Grognard Files who ran an obscure 80’s counterculture game, Psi World. Also at the table was Doc Cowie, Bud from Bud’s RPG reviews and Andrew from RPHaven whom it was also a pleasure to sit at the table with for what turned out to be an hilarious and quite surreal couple of hours. This session is often remembered for Doc Cowie’s heroic plumbing skills but often forgotten is the fact that it was Bud’s driving (or more accurately, crashing) skills that actually saved the day.

Home by 9:45

My other con of the year was the Owlbear and Wizard Staff.

This was my second OBaWS and I decided to run a game again. I was a little apprehensive as I’d run Space 1889 using Savage Worlds the previous year and whilst many folk had appreciated my model-making skills, I got the distinct feeling that the game didn’t go down terribly well with the players.

It was mentioned in the aftermath of the first one that there was a high demand for D&D and so, I decided that I’d offer a D&D game this year and turned to one of the first modules I’d ever run way back in 1984 and that was Round the Bend scenario from Imagine Magazine. It turned out, unbeknownst to me that Neil the Old Scouser had actually run it the year before and so I was able to consult with him on the best way to update it.

It involves a gang of Half-Orc thieves being miniaturised by a wizard and sent down his laboratory sink plug hole to retrieve a lens of minute seeing. Once again, I put my crafting skills to good use making a vertical battlemat from card and nervously set up for the players. I needn’t have worried. We had a blast. They got into their characters, the scenario is a good mix of combat and tricky situations and one obstacle was resolved in an unexpected and highly entertaining way. They were a good bunch and I’m hoping that next year’s will be as successful.

Round the Bend vertical battlemats with ridiculous animal for scale.

Both times I’ve been to OBaWS, I’ve run afternoon slots just in case I’m late arriving (not being able to stay over the night before) and in the morning slot I’ve played and this year I finally got to try out Pendragon. It was run by Gaz from the Smart Party podcast and involved a little bit of Lovecraftian shenanigans. Gaz did a top job and I liked the system but I don’t think it’s for me. I’m not a fan of low fantasy really and Pendragon is as low as it gets. Still, it’s another ticked off the list.

In amongst the con-going I’ve done other bits and pieces. I’ve been a crewmember on the USS Thunderchild in Matt Broome’s Star Trek Adventures campaign which he’s been running via Roll20. It’s been a blast. As previously mentioned I can’t decide if I like 2D20 or not, I’ll gush about it one minute and then pull faces at it the next, but it’s perfectly playable and I much prefer it to the previous Star Trek RPGs. Matt’s campaign has been fun, departing - in true Star Trek fashion - from the established timeline with the destruction of DS9 and the fall of the Alpha Quadrant. It’s given me a chance to get a feel for the game in action and I’m planning on running it at the RPHaven club later in the year.

I also got to run a one-shot of The One Ring as well at Firestorm Games in Cardiff. It took us 8 months to actually organise and it was quite a railroady scenario and I struggled with the combat rules a bit but I got the feeling that everyone had fun and generally approved of it. Again, I want to run a campaign at the RPHaven club some time soon.

Trying to fathom the combat rules - pic courtesy of Andrew Jones

Alongside all this I started running a club at the school I work at. There was already a fledgling Warhammer club when I first started there in 2018 and this has grown around 300% with the intake of this year’s year 7s. We were doing Kill Team but that’s expanded now to full 40K and Age of Sigmar. We’re also running X-Wing and next year I hope to also throw in Gaslands and some historical games to tie in with the curriculum.

The club in full swing under the watchful eye of Commandant Gutsquelcher Ellis.

Toward the end of last school year I tried starting an after-school D&D club too but gave up after I’d had to cancel it too many times.

Once we came back in September both myself and my colleague, Carl who runs the Warhammer club went full time and we were better able to manage things. I used the school DT facilities to make scenery and I also started up a D&D lunchtime club. I didn’t want to run the club at lunchtime but I ended up with so many kids wanting to play that I had to split them into different groups. Also many of them catch a bus home after school so lunchtimes is easier. 30-40 minutes may not seem like enough to really get into a game but the priority seems to be dicking about, so they don’t mind if we only get one fight or social interaction in and it’s also giving them a taster. I know several of them play at home on the weekends.

A modular catwalk system following the video by Wyloch

Destroyed buildings cut from MDF on the school laser cutter.
I really must paint them at some point.

One of the highlights of running the club was that last summer, two of the boys won the Kill Team regional and we got to take them to Warhammer World for the regional playoffs which was a real treat as I’d not been since just after it opened way back when.

The regional playoffs in full swing at Warhammer World

We also took some of the boys for an end of term trip to the Warhammer shop in Cardiff where they put on a game of Age of Sigmar for us and I was finally won over.

Dwarves vs Orcs - sorry, Duardin vs Orruks!  

 I’d been quite sniffy about it up until then being an Old World fan but the game they put on showed me that it was still the same fantasy mass battle game it had always been and I really enjoyed it. I’ve since read the new simplified rules too and really become a convert. So much so that I ran an updated version of the Ziggurat of Doom at the club recently, replacing the ziggurat with the Stones of Blood!

Six brave Stormcast Eternals defend the 'Stones of Blood' against waves of Skaven and other horrors.

Another rather delightful turn that came from running the club was the fact that I was asked to go on the last but two episode of Meeples and Miniatures podcast to talk about it. That was fun and during the show, one of the hosts, Mike Hobbs asked if folk could donate unwanted bits and pieces to the club and both myself and Carl have been blown away by the generosity of the show’s listeners. Now we just need to find somewhere to store it all! :D

This year I also started re-collecting Skaven, having sold my rather substantial army some fifteen years ago, thinking I’d never play again. I spent the last couple of hours of 2019 assembling Stormvermin and I’m hoping to field them a lot next year.

In tangential gaming news I was asked, once again to provide the logo for this years Grognard Files Podcast meetup, 'Grogmeet' and was delighted to recieve some goodies in return. One year I hope I can make it to the actual con.

Honorary Grogmeet swag 

And I think that’s everything. Until I sat down to write this, I hadn’t realised what a packed year it had been. Next year, my plan is to run more games at the RPHaven club in north Cardiff. Starting with Classic Traveller, then The One Ring, Star Trek Adventures and finally Runequest Glorantha. The school Warhammer and D&D club will continue and hopefully grow again with next year’s year 7 intake. I’m also hoping to attend UKGames Expo again and run something at OBaWS again.

I plan to continue growing my Skaven army but also want to buy enough World War 2 Soviets to be able to finally play Chain of Command. I’m also quite keen to give the new Battletech a go if I can only get my hands on a copy of it.

Time will tell.

Saturday 16 June 2018

My rather disappointing Free RPG Day (that turned out not to be so disappointing after all).

Ready to play Star Trek Adventures: Biological Clock

Today was international Free RPG Day and our local friendly game store, Rules of Play hosted a sort of ‘play-on-demand’ event at ‘The Gate’ community and arts centre in Roath, Cardiff.
Five days ago in a fit of reckless abandon I volunteered to run Star Trek Adventures, specifically the fabulous, Biological Clock scenario by Fred Love. I’d attended the event last year but as a player in Andy Jones’ Runequest Quickstart game. This year I thought I would try my hand at GMing. It is, after all, a laid back event and it would be a good dry run for my stint at the Owlbear and Wizard Staff in Leamington in September.
Five days of furious map-making, paper model making, trips to the printers, reading of the rules and scenario and copious note-taking ensued and by 11:30 this morning I was ready.

It didn’t start well. I got to the venue by 11:55 but couldn’t find anywhere to park. I drove round and around but it was a hellscape of resident permit holder parking as far as the eye could see. I eventually found unrestricted parking at Roath Field just over half a mile from the venue and walked it.
By the time I got there it was 1pm and everybody was already well into their games with every table pretty full as far as I could see. There was only one table left. A long one with two women sat at the far end drinking coffee and clearly not part of the event. At the other end I set out my bits and pieces, dice, pencils, character sheets, phaser, tricorder, space ship etc and sat there, waiting, looking at Twitter. I was fully prepared to have no players if I’m honest. The event, as I’ve said, is very laid back with no real GM registration and no booking system. All one has to do to run a game is declare that you will on Rules of Play’s Facebook page, show up on the day, set out your stall and see if anyone’s interested. I was fully prepared for nobody to be interested at all.
What I wasn’t prepared for was for my players to be a dad with two four-year old kids.
‘Is this Star Trek?’, he asked, having clearly been sent over by the game coordinator. My heart sank. However, he’d clearly brought his kids along to play games and by volunteering to run a game at a promotional event, I feel I’d essentially declared myself an ambassador for the hobby. The very worst thing I could possibly do at this point would be to turn him away claiming that it’s too complicated for his kids. Without batting an eyelid, I said, ‘Yes. take a seat.’ It wasn’t a problem, I decided. I’ll simply dump about 80% of the rules and keep it mostly to talking with some very simple dice rolls and that should make it kid friendly. I explained to the dad that that was what I’d do and we got into it and to be honest, they were as engaged with it as I think four-years olds could be expected to be and things were going okay. However, about half way through a couple of twenty somethings sidled up to the table and asked if there were any spaces. Now what was I to do? My task was to try and balance the game now so that it was simple enough for four-year olds but gamey enough for twenty-somethings. I was juggling a bowling ball and an egg and I can’t honestly say that I managed it very well.
They all stuck it out until the end of the scenario and succeeded in brokering a truce between the Opterans and the Kavians. The scenario couldn’t have played out better, really but because of the simplicity of it we barreled through the whole thing in about an hour and a half. I was disappointed at the way it had gone and decided to call it a day but then, realising that there were still two and a half hours left of the event, I figured I could reasonably run it again. I reluctantly reset the table and sat there for ten minutes but it became apparent that no-one was looking to join a game and I was starving so I decided that I would chalk it up to experience, clear away and go home.

Running the game for the dad and his kids was great. I did have to throw most of the rules out of the window but it was fun describing the various situations to them and seeing how they reacted. Despite my initial disappointment, that part was actually very positive. If I have any real regrets it’s partly that I still haven’t got to really run a game of Star Trek Adventures properly, but the issue that is troubling me more than anything else, was that the couple who joined us half way through had not played a roleplaying game before and I’d hate to think that they were in any way put off the hobby or, indeed, Star Trek Adventures by participating in a  pretty ‘bleh’ example of it.

Anyway, I must point out that none of this reflects badly on Rules of Play or The Gate who put on a really successful event, I think. I will definitely do this again next year but I think I need to run something that is not only an open-ended pick-up game that folk can dip in and out of (as opposed to a story based game where you really need to be in it from start to finish) and something that can be nice and simple for kids but at the same time, crunchy for adults. I think a straight forward D&D5 mega-dungeon crawl might be the way forward. I’ll give it some thought. I have a year.

On a much more positive note, however I got to meet Andy again and as I was packing up, one of the event organisers commandeered my table to lay out all the freebies and I got first dibs, acquiring a pretty decent haul, I have to say. I tried not to be greedy and only nabbed stuff that I thought I might actually play or be very interested in reading.

Overall I got Kids on Bikes, Wrath and Glory: Blessings Unheralded - the new WH40K rpg quickstart, Starfinder Skittershot (I know it’s Space-Pathfinder but I’m strangely attracted to it), Tunnels and Trolls Adventures Japan, and Call of Cthulhu - Scritch Scratch by Lynne Hardy (and friends). That’ll keep me occupied for a while :D

A pretty decent haul.

Supplemental: After writing this and linking to it on Twitter, the Dad of the two kids (one of which was eight, not four - oops) got in touch to say how much they'd really enjoyed it and that his son was now wanting to watch Star Trek. I was totally blown away by this and it made me realise that far from failing, I'd actually done something really positive. It made me re-read this post and wonder what exactly what it was that I found disappointing about the event and I have to confess that really, it's just that my pre-concieved expectations of what my players would be wasn't met and that's absurd. The fault is entirely with me. I really enjoyed running the game for the little ones and I'd do it again in heartbeat (but with a much simpler rule set). I still feel bad for the couple that joined us later and I hope that they weren't put off but knowing that the kids really enjoyed it, balances things out, I think.

Sunday 10 June 2018

The Blagger’s Guide to DMing or ‘Just have a go and don't worry about it’

Bradley Clopton (c) 2014 2014
I saw a link on Twitter the other day to an article asking why many new players were reluctant to take up the mantle of DM (I can’t remember where it was now, sadly). To me the answer was obvious and it’s something that’s been bothering me for a while.
Youtube shows like ‘Critical Role’, ‘Shield of Tomorrow’ and ‘Acquisitions Incorporated’ have done more to invigorate and recruit new blood to the roleplaying hobby than anything else in the last forty plus years and I’m very grateful for that. The hobby, I think has never been healthier in popularity and diversity. However I’ve also sensed a creeping idolisation of their DMs. Alongside this, I’ve noticed a great many blog pages given over to articles on how to be an ‘awesome’ DM. These factors have, I fear contributed to the romanticised myth of the role of Games Master or Dungeon Master as some form of high art. It’s easy to see how many newcomers to the game might look at Critical Role and say, ‘Well, I’m no Matt Mercer.’ and leave it there.
Watching Matt Colville on Youtube once, he read out a comment from his chat channel, ‘How long do I need to play D&D before I should consider being a DM?’ He was quite rightly flabberghasted and said without hesitation, ‘No time at all. Jump in and have a go.’ And this is, really the essence of this post.

DMing is a skill that we learn by doing. I’ve reached a stage after thirty-four years of playing roleplaying games, where I’m reasonably comfortable with what I am doing as a DM and that’s only happened very recently. Am I a great DM? I don’t know. Is there a measurable scale? All I know is that my players enjoy themselves and, in my experience it’s hard for folk not to enjoy themselves when you’re sat around a table with friends laughing your socks off regardless of the DM’s ability.

I did go through a period of doubting myself and in retrospect it wasn’t entirely my fault. I DM’ed for my friends when we were teenagers partly because I loved the idea of creating the world, creating the situations and the story and being the only player at the table who knew what was really going on. Also because my friends were lazy buggers who couldn’t be bothered with the prep. Was I a good DM? No. And that’s not false modesty, of course I wasn’t. I barely understood what I was doing but my friends and I had an absolute riot and kept going for years. At some point, during those years,  they were working their way methodically through a nonsensical generic dungeon, room by room when suddenly they encountered a creature of my own making, the humanoid, flaming ‘Combustians!’
‘Combustians?’ Sneered one of my players, rolling his eyes. That was it. That was the exact moment where I realised that I could no longer just throw any old thing in and it’d be okay. That was the moment I realised it was possible to be a bad DM and I found myself riddled with pre-game stage fright for years after that. What if this game was another ‘Combustians!?’ I would ask myself, nervously.
Looking back however, ‘Combustians’ weren’t the issue. I was young, I was trying to come up with something unique that they hadn’t encountered before. I thought it was a cool idea. My players disagreed and ridiculed me for it. That didn’t make me a bad DM. It was a mistake. That was all. They were still having fun and, honestly if they didn’t like it, they could bloody DM for a change. No? Didn’t think so.
Quite simply we’d reached an age where my games, my dungeons and my plots, would need to be a little more sophisticated and that’s fine. I learned by doing. I wish I’d realised that back then and just moved on (I’d also have just glared at them across the table like it was their fault).

Okay, so you’re willing to give it a go but the rules and the campaign sourcebooks are daunting and overwhelming. Here’s the big secret: You don’t need to know all the rules. As a DM of Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition I don’t know all of the rules. In fact I know very few of them and that works fine. Let me see...I know how a combat turn works. How to roll for initiative and what needs to be rolled to hit. I know how to fairly decide on a difficulty number for a skill check. I probably know a handful of more rules but that’s about it. I don’t know all the race and class rules or how every spell works. As far as I am concerned, that’s my players’ responsibility and they can tell me when I need to know. Sometimes there’s a rule that nobody at the table knows. Then we pause for a second and look it up. No problem. Now we know it for next time (and if it’s going to take too long, I ask one of the players to look it up whilst I continue). You might think that that would break the immersion and spoil the atmosphere but honestly, alongside the table chatter, TV, movie and games console discussion, play theorising, Monty Python quotes and general goofing around, it really doesn’t.
It is fair to say at this point, however that whilst you don’t need to know all the rules, you should really have a solid handle on the core rules or the players will find the goalposts moving on them and that will confuse and frustrate them. That’s a big no-no.

Campaign settings can be daunting too and, again, you don’t need to know it all. In fact my advice, particularly for Dungeons and Dragons is don’t bother.
As a new D&D DM I wouldn’t do anything other than mini-dungeons until you’ve got the hang of it and then worry about the outside world later and even then, start with a simple village and work your way out. Even then you can start with the ubiquitous equipment store and fill in the village later.
I started off the Lost Mines of Phandelver campaign in the Forgotten Realms but then wanted to run the old Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay campaign, The Enemy Within. Trying to fit the rivers and towns of the Empire into the Sword Coast was challenging (I managed it, though. I changed Bogenhafen into Daggerford and went from there) and if I’d kept the setting more vague then I’d just be able to make it up as the characters expand outwards. Let the scenarios dictate the geography rather than vice versa.
So, start small and work your way out and don’t overwhelm your players, and more importantly yourself with a myriad setting details. They can come later, if at all.

Another thing that I feel is important is that it’s not just on the DM to provide a great game. The DM is just another player at the table and you all have a responsibility not to spoil it for everyone else.
As a DM, if I feel that I have screwed up, then I will fess up, talk it over with the players, give them a ‘bennie’ if necessary and try not to do it again.
However, I also have a personal rule when I sit down to play (as opposed to DM) and that is that I always try to make the game as fun for the DM as they are trying to make it for us. The DM is playing too so why shouldn’t they have fun as well? So, what does that mean? Well, quite simply forgive them occasional rules discrepancies. They’re only human. Play along with their plot a little and don’t roll your eyes if it’s predictable. Allow yourself to be railroaded sometimes. Don’t try and scupper the campaign deliberately just to prove a point. In the immortal words of Wil Wheaton, ‘Don’t be a dick.’

So, in summing up:

    DMing should be fun, not a nightmare. Roll your sleeves up, jump in and have a go.

    You’ll definitely screw up a few times but that’s okay and you’ll learn from it.

    You don’t need to know all the rules, just the core ones.

    You don’t need to know the entire setting, start with a mini dungeon and work out.

    Players have a responsibility to make the game fun as much as the DM does.

    As a player or a DM, don’t be a dick.

    There’s nothing wrong with ‘Combustians’, Adrian. F**k you.

Ultimately, it’s a game. It’s meant to be fun. Nobody should be expecting you to be Matt Mercer. Just have a go and enjoy it.

The Big Adventure by Zazb

Wednesday 14 December 2016

Design and production of the Effigy of Nabu Incarnate

Note - there are spoilers within so do not read if you intend to play in the campaign.

I was really quite thrilled when Paul Maclean contacted me practically out of the blue and asked me if I would consider being a sketch artist for the’s (YSDC) next recorded Call of Cthulhu campaign playthrough, the Curse of Nineveh by Cubicle 7.
He’d seen my recent interpretation of the Strathmorn map from the 80’s ‘Green and Pleasant Land’ Britain sourcebook for Call of Cthulhu and thought I’d be just the ticket. I gleefully agreed, having been a fan of the YSDC recordings for years and was absolutely delighted to be involved in even just a small way.
Now, I’m a digital 3D artist by trade and my 2D skills are really quite rusty and I was looking for an opportunity in the project to put my 3d skills to use. I’d recently discovered P3D - a website that allows you to upload 3D models and then link to an online viewer - and to my delight discovered that the Nineveh campaign itself revolved around several artefacts. I suggested to Paul that I might sculpt these artefacts digitally so that the players could examine them virtually on their tablets or phones.

The campaign has four objects that the PCs need to collect and a primary object that they start with. The primary artefact is the figurine of Nabu Incarnate and is described thus:

The statuette given to Neve Selcibuc by Archie Glossop, which in turn is given to the investigators at the start of this scenario, is known as “Nabu Incarnate.” It is approximately 20cm (8”) high and made from pure gold. The statuette is of a bearded king who appears to be transforming out of a second, plainer humanoid figure. The effect is to suggest some form of divine conversion or god-like birth. There are no marks or inscriptions save for a small sigil carved on the base, which looks like a rune of some kind: it is in no human language and requires a successful Cthulhu Mythos roll to decipher that it means “Yul’huthris”, a being with a link to the coterminous blasphemy that is Yog-Sothoth.

Designing the Beast

I thought that maybe I could sculpt this in high detail in ZBrush, and from that, extrapolate the assets I needed to display it in real time in the P3D browser. Paul was quite keen on this idea also and so I set about Googling images of Assyrian sculpture and pictures specifically of Nabu himself and then started sketching the figure.

Initially I thought that both figures could be offset equally in a sort of Y shape, but it made more sense that Nabu (or Yul’Huthris) himself, should be upright, unharmed and un-phased by his emergence into the world. The other, ‘plainer’ figure should appear to be in great distress, so I sketched a new version that was more in line with that.

The Initial Sculpt 


I liked this idea and set about sculpting it in ZBrush. I originally wanted the victim character to be utterly featureless. The implication was that not only could it be any person, male or female, young or old but that it was also now devoid of every facet that made it an individual, having been utterly subsumed by Nabu.

Once sculpted though, I wasn’t happy with it. I was pleased with Nabu as he had been taken directly from genuine sculptings. The other figure, however didn’t look Assyrian, really. In fact it looked like Nabu had possessed the children’s animated character, Morph and looked unintentionally comical. So I decided that it needed to look more Assyrian but significantly plainer and less impressive looking than Nabu. I noticed that on some bass reliefs, common foot soldiers were often depicted beardless and with fairly plain garments and braided hair. That seemed to be an ideal fit.

The Assyrian sculptures that I’ve seen all depict people with blank, expressionless faces but I really wanted the ‘victim’ character to look distressed so I hollowed out his eyes and raised his eyebrows to give him a look of despair.  The robes may very well be uncharacteristic of the period too but I wanted a simple, featureless base to the model that would stand easily.

The Rune of Yul'Huthris 

The figure also has a rune on it's base that is clearly from no known human language. My original design felt a bit Japanese 


So I went back and drew some new designs and the one that stuck out was one that was based on the shape of the figure. So I went with that.

Adventures in virtual viewing


Once the figure was sculpted I used it to create a low resolution real-time mesh and also sample bitmaps for creating the textures with.

I put them in P3D but was disappointed with the results. The basic shader fell far short of the quality I wanted and whilst the advanced shader that comes with the paid subscription to P3D was better it still wasn’t quite good enough for what I wanted. This combined with the fact that I didn’t want to ask Paul to subscribe long term to something he had little interest in just so my work would look nice.
So I looked into other options. One was to use the Unity game engine and an embedded web-browser designed to work specifically with it. This would allow Paul to take ownership of the files and host them directly at - Sadly, the Unity browser model viewer has recently ceased to be supported by the big browsers so it no longer works.

Bereft of realistic options, I suggested a simple video turnaround. Not as fun or as unique as my original suggestion but it’d have to do.


Adventures in 3D Printing

Whilst I was lamenting all this to Paul, he suggested 3D printing the figure. He felt it would, itself be quite a unique thing to do.

I was initially reluctant. First of all an 8” tall figure would likely be very expensive and also, I was not terribly impressed with the quality of many 3D printed objects I’d seen. I feel that 3D printing is still in it’s infancy and is still too low res to really produce anything worthwhile without a lot of cleaning up work. Paul remained quite interested, though so I said I’d look into it.

I began by cutting the figure in half down the centre and then hollowing it out. I had never 3D printed anything before but I understand the process. It builds up the object in fine slivers and struggles with overhanging elements that are unsupported. Support columns are often added by the printer to aid in this but I felt it would benefit me to help the printer as much as possible. So I reasoned that it would be better to cut the figure in half and lay the halves flat on the printing surface. This would also help me hollow the figures out. Hollowing them uses less material and is therefore cheaper. I removed a large portion of the inside of the figure, making sure to leave a fairly thick wall that would not collapse during printing. This wall often needs to be a couple of mm thick. I think I made mine at least 5-6mm.

ZBrush has built in tools for exporting objects in a 3D printing file format so it was a simple matter to extract the files.

I uploaded them to Shapeways, the online 3D printing service who have their own browser-based software that allows you to resize, re-orient and check the pieces for printability in all the various materials that Shapeways offers.
I only wanted a basic printed shape that I could work on top of so I opted for the cheapest material, hard, white plastic. To my delight, the piece passed the printability test with flying colours and the price whilst not cheap wasn’t quite as terrible as I had feared. I contacted Paul with the quote and he said to go right ahead.

So, the next day I hopped over to my Shapeways account and ordered the pieces. This was when I got a bit of a shock. Once I started the ordering process, the price went up considerably. Confused, I backtracked slightly and discovered that printing is more expensive if you live outside the USA. Not shipping, printing. No idea why. I stopped and went back to Paul, who despite a sharp intake of breath agreed to proceed anyway. To try and help, I volunteered to cover the cost of finishing materials if he covered the printing costs.

A week or so later the pieces arrived and they looked fabulous but, as I feared, there was a noticeable ‘wood grain’ effect in the upper, shallower surfaces of the model due to the printing process. This is, I hasten to add, no fault of Shapeways who’s service was superb, it is merely a shortcoming of the process at present. Still, it was much cleaner than all the home prints I’d ever seen to date.

Fill, sand, fill, sand, fill, sand, fill, sand.


Next came the finishing process.
I decided that what I’d do is sand down the ‘wood grain’, fill the figure with something heavy and then spray it gold.

First I sprayed the two pieces with standard grey primer to highlight the ‘wood grain’ effect so that I could see it more easily.
Then I began sanding with 40 and 60 grit sandpaper on the larger areas. In retrospect, this was way too coarse and I should have used something more like 120.
That said, the sanding took more elbow grease than I thought and the grain proved to be more stubborn to get rid of than I hoped. Also to my dismay, in the meantime I’d managed to inadvertently damage and remove some of the fine detail.
I persisted, however, a little more carefully. I used some needle files to work into the nooks and crannies around the face. I used layers of high-build automotive filler/primer and just kept working and working at it and the grain finally wore away.
I also managed to recover some of the fine details with a scribe and in the end, the two halves cleaned up reasonably well.

Making it heavy

Next came the issue of weighting the thing.
I initially dismissed the idea of filling it with lead (the ideal filler) as I assumed it would be too expensive. I toyed with the idea of mixing something like sand with filler but it never really felt like it would give the statue a decent heft.
I idly googled lead fishing weights and discovered that it’s really not that expensive after all so I ordered 1.5kg of them (not knowing how much in volume I really needed) I guessed that that would be enough and if it was less volume than I needed then 1.5 kg would easily be enough weight. Either way it was a win.

The weights arrived and they were quite a size.

I managed to fit most of three in to the figure and gave it a weight of around 800 grams. Not as heavy as I would have liked but still gave it a respectable heft.
Two of the weights fitted into the base but I needed to chop one of them up to fit into the upper part. That was a challenge. I started off using a hacksaw but it was very slow going. I tried drilling holes in a line to make the task easier and killed two drill bits, I’m guessing because it got too hot! In the end I found a hammer and chisel was adequate to crudely chop the weight in to pieces and I was able to make small enough chunks to fit inside the figure.

I used Araldite to fix the weights in place. I didn’t want them rattling around once the figure was assembled.
Once that was hardened, I put the pieces together and glued it again with Araldite, applying more to the inside of the opposite half of the figure so that it dripped on to the weights inside and secured it from both sides.
I clamped the figure together and let it dry and harden overnight to be certain it was solidly fixed.

ALAS! I got the alignment slightly wrong. Only by half a millimetre or so but it was enough to create a slight lip down one side that would need fixing.

The Araldite did a pretty good job of filling the join so not much filler was required to close the seam. That said, it is quite a rubbery substance and so needed scraping back in places and sanding down. Then it was a case of breaking out the P38 car body filler and applying to cracks in the join and also to skim over the slight lip down the side of the figure and under the base.
Once dry, I sanded it nice and flat and then primed it.
Once the primer was dry I was able to identify dinks and spots that still needed filler. I applied the filler and primed it again. Now it looked pretty smooth and neat with little evidence of the join.
I gave it one last rub down with some 1200 grit wet and dry to make it nice and smooth. In retrospect, this was probably too fine. 400 would have been adequate.

Gold! Solid gold!

Nabu was now ready for his gold paint.

The next challenge was finding a decent gold paint. There are a lot of options here but it’s difficult to be certain of the final outcome until you have paid for the paint and sprayed something. I’ve had little joy with metallic paints in the past. My Klingon Bat’leth was sprayed with a metallic spray (the name and manufacturer I’ve forgotten now, sorry) that looked like real metal when it was finished but took about 6 months to harden by which time the blade had all sorts of scuffs on it. Just wrapping it in cloth for transport would blemish the surface!
I looked at pots of paint I could spray with my airbrush and tried Airfix gold which looks more like copper-coloured plastic. Tamiya Gold Leaf was a good colour but slightly green tinted and as with the airfix had a white specular highlight giving it a plasticky feel.
I looked at automotive spray cans in Halfords but the golds all looked like gloss browns.
When I made the Save the Queen Sword I sprayed the crossguard black primer and dry-brushed it using Citadel Imperial Gold drybrush paints. The results were impressive but Paul wanted something more realistic and not obviously drybrushed so a spray it had to be.
Finally I came across the Rust-O-Leum range at Homebase. As with all other spray cans, the lid is no representation of the actual finish of the spray itself. The lid on the one I purchased was electroplated gold with a mirror finish. I knew before I even started that I wasn’t going to get a finish like that. Really they should spray the caps with the paint in the tin. That way you’d know what you’re getting, but on the label they had a photo of objects that had most likely been sprayed with the actual paint and it looked pretty good. I took a chance on it and I have to say that it turned out pretty well. It’s not going to fool anyone but short of electroplating the piece, it was as good as it was going to get.

The gold spray unfortunately highlighted some small areas that weren’t as smooth or as finished as I’d have liked and there was unfortunately still a soft and subtle - but noticeable nonetheless - ridge down one side. I could have gone back and sanded these areas some more but time was running out and I decided that it was good enough.


Presentation is everything!

With Nabu done it was time to send him. A few days before finishing the figure I'd visited an Indiana Jones themed archaeology display at the museum here in Cardiff and it occured to me that it might be nice to send Nabu up to Paul in a straw-filled wooden crate.
I set about building the crate using some cheap baton and some panel pins. My carpentry skills are substantially less than adequate but I though that that might add to the overall authenticity of the piece. That's my excuse anyway. I bought some rabbit straw at the local pet shop and filled it up. I then needed a cloth to wrap him in. The local charity shop came up trumps with a rather lovely pashmina scarf that I proceeded to mercilessly shred. The final touch was a British Museum label that I made in Photoshop and printed on to tea-weathered paper. I considered weathering the whole box but felt I was getting a bit carried away. The whole thing looked pretty spectacular when assembled, though.


Final Thoughts

So, all in all, this has been a fun and fascinating learning experience and I am quite pleased and proud of the end results. That said, I would be reluctant to 3D print anything else for the time being. I think once the resolution has improved to the point that very high detail and virtually smooth surfaces can be printed I will probably go nuts, but for now I'd probably tackle something like this in future with more traditional methods and materials.