miniatures roleplaying tabletop games

Troupe play


Utopia game in progress
Utopia game in progress. Sgt Fender’s attack dog Baton posing.

We’ve been playing a science fiction miniatures campaign with heavy roleplaying game elements for half a dozen games now. I’ve always liked the idea of having a handful of characters to run at the same time and this game is the first instance where I’ve got to really try it with other people. As a much younger man I used to play some RPGs by myself, running a group of characters against myself – I remember playing Earthdawn, Mechwarrior and some edition of Dungeons & Dragons this way.

So played in a group, in this game, it works great. So what do we do and why does it work? Could it be used elsewhere?


The campaign, called Utopia, is basically Starship Troopers plus Aliens plus the RPG 3:16. We’re playing pointedly generic space grunts deployed on a variety of missions across the galaxy. The whole campaign is basically an excuse for the gamemaster to get to play with his large collection of scifi miniatures. We’re facing new kinds of enemies every other game, roughly. So far we’ve peered Alien xenomorphs, Terminator cyborgs, Predator… aliens and various human rebels down our sights. For a group consisting of same-aged scifi nerds, it’s pretty much ideal. We’re essentially playing with toys on a playground we all know and love.

Each player – we have three plus GM – has three soldiers they’re playing simultaneously. They’re all on the same sheet. When new soldiers are introduced to replace KIA/MIA soldiers, they’re initially just a name, a role and a rank.

The game always opens with the soldiers lounging in the mess hall. The GM goes around the whole squad, asking questions to bring every soldier into the spotlight in turn. All told we spend around an hour on the roleplaying as we get a new mission and adjust to the changing dynamics of the group. That’s enough time to involve everyone out of the nine guys in the squad, plus their commander and random guest stars, for instance soldiers currently in the infirmary.

Before we move on, we build on a chart of relationships in the squad. This is straight soap opera, just establishing entertaining and interesting connections between the guys. Everyone is linked to someone else, and if characters survive, you build on those links.

Then it’s off to the mission. We break out the miniatures and start playing. We’re using Flying Lead, which is absolutely spot-on for this kind of small units gaming. It’s detailed enough to work with single characters, yet abstract and fast enough to not get in the way. You should check it out if you’ve ever desired a modern or scifi small units tactical game on the character level.

Flying Lead adds to the drama, often resulting in sudden changes in the fight dynamics, especially because of the way the initiative and activation system works. It’s not a straight you move – I move dynamic: there’s always the option of going slow and steady and not accomplishing much, or pushing your luck, rushing it, and sometimes just falling completely dead in the water.

When playing, the roles of the soldiers have started to take more and more center stage. We’re making very questionable choices on the field, just because trooper Lau is a superstitious junkie of an infantryman, or because the medic secretly loves the old sergeant, or because there’s no way the characters could tell what they’re actually facing is zombies, not shell-shocked civilians.

More often than not, all this color results in troopers dying. It’s great! There’s drama in every activation. Every single fallen soldier hurts, not necessarily because of the time invested in them, but because they feel like actual characters thanks to the roleplaying. I would recommend a similar setup in any sort of ongoing miniatures campaign, because it adds so much.

Flying Lead roster
Flying Lead roster of my characters so far, six games in.


I initially thought that this would be very confusing for a player, but it’s not, thanks to there being so few details about the soldiers available. It’s not a lot to keep track of. Because you need three guys at all times, you use shorthands – “the new sergeant is basically Robert Patrick from The Unit”, “okay, in that case, who’s wife is he sleeping with?”, and so forth. Stereotypes really work!

On the battlefield, it works thanks to Flying Lead. You couldn’t really do this with Warhammer 40K, say, with its unit-level abstraction (unless you went with “hero” characters only, but even in Kill-Team it’s just not as good), or even in a roleplaying game like D&D 4E, with its high level of detail in the characters. The index card sized characters and their fates are perfect for the unit sized drama.

While the losses feel much more painful, the victories are amplified in the same way. The emotional highs and lows of the game far outlie what’s normal for a miniatures game. You love seeing the story of the battle shape, and everyone’s rooting for the guy in the spotlight, despite also controlling their own guys. It’s an experience that could only be done in this fashion, it wouldn’t come through in any other medium.


It would be interesting to try this with some other setup than a war game. I believe we’re getting a lot of help from our shared experience of similar scenarios, be it Vietnam movies, Battlestar Galactica or Starship Troopers. We know how to make our scenes entertaining and true to the fiction. So what if we take away this useful crutch?

The problem with most typical roleplaying game setups and troupe play is that jumping from deep within a character to another character is very difficult. Instead, you need to adapt to playing on the surface. That doesn’t mean it can’t be meaningful, but it does mean that you need to be able to turn characters on and off immediately.

Consider the game master in any game. He’s effectively playing a large troupe every night. It can be difficult, yes, but it’s something you do learn better at. By using shorthands it’s possible to run a group of strong NPCs in the same scene without being too preoccupied with any one of them.

Things I use to quickly establish characters is figure out a single connection to another character and make that obvious through action, add one or two details about their presence (smell of sea, kind eyes), and use likenesses from the real world when possible – I often use Hollywood actors everybody likely knows as a quick way of borrowing their presence. (Just make sure the character matches with that actor’s or character’s generally expected attributes. You wouldn’t want to cast Daniel Day-Lewis in an inconsequential role. Unless you wanted to say something with that.)

What about a game where every player had a cast of characters like the GM? I think it could work, as long as you give people the room to settle deeper into a single character when they want to, much like a TV show does, typically focusing on a couple of characters per episode even if they have a cast of dozens. The instant when it becomes more work is when you have multiple characters per player in the same scene. In addition to making sense to yourself, portraying the characters, you need to keep in mind the other players, who may have trouble following who’s acting and speaking, if you’re not careful. Again, the miniatures help here.

I would strongly suggest a group scenario, like everybody belonging to the same motorcycle club, criminal gang, police unit, or the like. This gives you room to sidestep some of the motivation issues as you have the group’s shared goals to use.

Fallen Predator
Fallen Predator. We got a lot of shit for that mission, not managing to capture it alive.


Suppose you would set up a troupe game. What would you tell your players to follow through with your idea? On the surface it looks like you’re signing up on a lot of extra stress for no gain.

Troupe play is kind of like shooting with a shotgun. Your individual characters may not be as strong, but due to their sheer number, some of them are really going to click with the other players and their characters.

An added bonus is that when you just have one character, it’s common that you need to compromise on your vision or goals for the character to make a good fit with the rest of the group. With a whole cast of characters, you can take more risks and find out quickly what works. Quite literally, you can have a go at the same scene with a bunch of characters. Didn’t work? Try again.

From a game master’s point of view the fact that you have more than one character gives more room to operate. You don’t have to be so careful with the characters. You can really put someone in a tight spot and risk their lives when you’re not ruining that player’s night if their only character would die or be so inconvenienced that he’s effectively written out of the story.

While this may sound like a cop-out, I find it gives more room for high drama. High stakes just tend to work better than playing it safe. And it’s the same for a player – you can take much bigger risks and go for big plays when you know it isn’t such a big deal if some characters suffer.

miniatures roleplaying tabletop games

Actual play: Flying Lead


Space marines kicking ass, taking names
Space marines kicking ass, taking names.

A friend of mine started running a hybrid roleplaying and miniatures campaign based on a freeform mashup of Starship Troopers, Aliens and whatever else “space marine” and scifi cliches you care to mention. It’s doing something I’ve thought about for years yet never acted on: adding some character to miniatures gaming. Putting some soul into it.

Our space marines are not very heroic – they’re grunts in space. Our three players each have three guys, one of which is always starring in that episode. A game consists of some 20-30 minutes of roleplaying and a tactical scenario. Mortality rate is high. The game master plays the opposing force, so it’s roughly 10 versus 10.

In the initial scenario our nine troopers encountered a hostage situation with a miner uprising in a human colony. We did conquer the day, but suffered a 30% casualty rate. My “star” character for the evening, Corporal “Ace” Wembley, died in the hands of our medic following an admittedly foolhardy rush to the enemy flank. My second most favorite character, Trooper “Dog” Lau, got shot in the first moments of the encounter, but at least lived to tell the tale. The Norwegian Tech, Bjornssen, got killed in a sniper shootout.

Hostage situation in the middle, marines taking cover behind bar, which is on fire after the initial flamethrower action. Notice the ambushing insurgents in the background.
Hostage situation in the middle, marines taking cover behind bar, which is on fire after the initial flamethrower action. Notice the ambushing insurgents in the background.

I was initially skeptical about how much depth the roleplaying would add, but it worked out great. We only played through a very short introduction and briefing – one scene – only sketching out the characters with a couple of lines and a single shot. But when the troops bled, it meant something.

We’re approaching it like a war movie or TV series – rookies come and the ones that stick start to gather personality. But there is no such thing as script immunity. I was really surprised at how little effort it took to breathe some soul into the otherwise standard fare, for a large part identically kitted out marines.

The Flying Lead system was new to me. It’s very good, completely supporting the way we roleplayed the characters and moving fast enough to keep things dynamic. The risk-based initiative system is brilliant. The way the situation developed and deteriorated felt both natural and cinematic. It tells a lot that even though we didn’t document anything, I can vividly recall all the key moments and most of the names and roles of the guys in the squad.

I’ve been thinking about a system to replace Warhammer 40’000 for me, and this could well be it. I like smaller unit action anyway, and Flying Lead allows you to keep things on an individual level without getting bogged down in minutiae. Most closely this resembles the original Rogue Trader, except with a much, much leaner system. Compared to current 40K, Flying Lead works well with individual characters… without adding character level complexity. It’s really rather good. (And it costs eight bucks.)

If this all intrigues you, do take a look at the gamemaster’s side of things.

miniatures PC

Warhammer 40 000: Space Marine

Warhammer 40 000 Space Marine cover
Space Marine cover

Based on Relic’s history with Warhammer 40 000 I had a feeling they might really deliver with Space Marine, their first action take on the franchise. I’ve played both Dawn Of War titles a lot and liked the adaptations into videogame form quite a bit. As most Warhammer fans, what I’d really love is a direct translation of the tabletop experience, but that is something Games Workshop is unlikely to sanction. They are worried about their core business of selling miniatures. At least that’s what I’ve heard, but when Relic’s pumping out games of this caliber, I can’t help but wonder if the digital business might be bigger to them already. It’s intellectual property first, games second.

That Warhammer 40 000 – the world, the IP – has survived for over two decades (since 1987 – 24 years) without changing and still feel fresh amidst the endless contemporary clones (of which Gears Of War is the best), is more than a minor miracle. This is a living classic we are dealing with, here.

That this signifigance is lost on the majority of this game’s audience feels so wrong to me.

It would be impossible for me to judge Space Marine on its own. Relic has been able to dig into my brain and extract how I imagined being a Space Marine feeling like as a kid, and you can’t bypass that emotional link. If I were to try, I would say it’s a Gears Of War-y shooter with meaty close combat and satisfyingly tactical scenarios, set in a world with depth and history and too much running in tunnels. Weapon differences don’t feel quite important enough. The enemies could be more varied, and doesn’t a bit of it feel derivative? I mean, “space marines”? That doesn’t even work as a joke.

But that’s not the point of it. It can’t be. It fulfills the fantasy of being a Space Marine, a god of war, more badass than Kratos and out-manning Marcus et al. Captain Titus of the Ultramarines is very much the original badass. They way the (also tough as nails) Imperial Guard troopers stand a couple of feet shorter than you, kneel and address you as “my Lord” – they really let you revel in the fantasy. You are a space knight, riding into the green wave of nasties as the champion of all. You are the boss man of just a handful of guys, sent in because an army wouldn’t suffice. Space Marines. Yeah.

But it also about seeing and experiencing the Warhammer 40 000 world. Traversing a Forge world under siege from an Ork invasion, the historical world crumbling all around you as you’re racing to protect its most critical assets (Titans) from the alien, it’s stuff I’ve imagined countless times, now seen and felt for the first time. And it does not disappoint. Relic have gone to town with delivering the siege mentality, with audio logs (delivered via servo skulls), grissly wounded soldiers and decimated housing complexes.

The plasma, melta and las weapons don’t feel quite as good as I’d hoped and the (grand!) melee could use a bit more precision, but they’ve got the core so right. Bolt pistol and chainsword in hand, there is no number of Orks that could stop me.

I will never look at my beloved Space Marines quite the same again. I’ve finally got to play the part of one, and from now on, these small plastic men will never be inanimate again.

Oh, and I’ve been playing it on the PC, using an Xbox controller. The console versions felt pretty much the same, but I’m hoping we’ll see some cool mods for the PC down the line. It runs really well on my ageing system.

It will be interesting to see how the game is received in the hands of consumers largely ignorant of its legacy. I think it’s appealing enough to have legs, but against the likes of Gears Of War 3, I’m not sure.


Dirty Angels

WIP: Space Marine Blood Angels

I painted my Space Marines for three nights in a row, picked up some more paints and brushes (my wife got an “Insane Detail” brush, which I find hilarious), and today painted all night long. It’s great to be really into something that’s not work.

Currently I’ve completed the base colors and inks for the beginnings of my new Blood Angels force. As you can see, I like my Angels dirty. There’s still plenty of highlighting and touch-up to do, but I couldn’t resist snapping some photos of the work in progress.

I am first working on the Dreadnought and some Tactical Marines plus their Sergeant. I feel dumb for working on the Dreadnought without having worked on some basic troops first, seeing that I’ve made a bunch of mistakes already, but I needed something so cool to get back to that I knew I’d keep on painting despite being busy with other stuff.

From the left: two Deathwatch Marines, formerly of the Blood Angels, one basic BA Marine, BA Dreadnought, BA Sergeant and tactical Marine with flamer. The flamer guy is the only one with what I think will be the basic paint scheme for the army, the others are experiments.

blog culture DS miniatures PC PS3 PSP tabletop games XBLA Xbox 360

The best of 2009

My 10 best games of 2009
My 10 best games of 2009

For the most of 2009 I spent my gaming time playing games from 2008 – Far Cry 2, Fable II, Rock Band 2, lots of cheap PSP & DS titles, Company Of Heroes, Dawn Of War (the first one) – but I thought it could be fun to put together a list of what was the best 2009 had to offer. For future reference, see.

I have not played many of the big hitters of 2009 so there’s bound to be holes, but these days, gaming is too big a pastime for one man to wholly take in with his free time (and income). Major omissions include Halo: ODST, Modern Warfare 2, Resident Evil 5 and Dragon Age: Origins, to name a few.

My ten best games of 2009:

  1. Space Hulk (board game)
  2. Batman: Arkham Asylum. I haven’t written about Rocksteady’s phenomenal take on Batman (because I’ve been too busy playing it), but it ranks as one of my all-time favorite games. Play it.
  3. Demon’s Souls
  4. GTA Chinatown Wars (DS)
  5. Shadow Complex
  6. Torchlight. I’ve been playing this for most of the holidays, it’s crazy good. Too bad about the lack of variety and the still missing multiplayer.
  7. Killzone 2
  8. Plants Vs Zombies. This Popcap title stole a ridiculous amount of time this year. Probably the best value for money all year. [Update April 2018: looks like the original isn’t available anymore. This Flash version looks like it might work:]
  9. Street Fighter IV
  10. Rock Band Unplugged

I’m surprised by how many “small” games there are – mobile games and cheap PC games. Remarkably, the only one I was looking forward to before it hit was Killzone 2, the rest of these have been more or less very happy surprises.

culture miniatures

The coolest thing in the entire world?

RX-78 Gundam in Odaiba, Tokyo
RX-78 Gundam in Odaiba, Tokyo

A 1:1 scale, eighteen meter tall giant robot? Out in the wild? No contest. Check out Punynari’s coverage.

miniatures PS3 tabletop games Xbox 360

Warhammer 40’000: Space Marine

Warhammer 40'000: Space Marine
Warhammer 40'000: Space Marine

Warhammer 40’000 is all about violent action and it’s something of a wonder that its rich universe hasn’t spawned any decent action games. I haven’t played the 2003 title Fire Warrior, but the word is not in its favor. Relic has been very good to the licence with its Dawn Of War series and I greet the news of them doing an action-RPG about the Space Marines with fanboyish excitement. The trailer is really very good.

I am still left wanting for a modern strategy game take on the franchise – Dawn Of War is too wrapped in RTS tropes to really scratch that Total War itch I have. I’d settle for a turn-based version, I think.

I dream about getting to make a great Warhammer 40’000 videogame.


Cadian Sentinel

Yeah, it's obviously an AT-ST, actually. Click to go big
Yeah, it's obviously an AT-ST, actually. Click to go big

I made this Warhammer 40’000 Imperial Guard Cadian Sentinel today. It’s not quite done, lacking the metal shafts and piping in the legs and the gun’s barrel because I’m out of gray paint, and the base because I’m out of time, but I am pretty happy with it thus far. It turned out better than I expected, although the backside view is boring since there’s nothing but green. I’ll need to think of some detailing.

I wish I had spent more time and effort on the pilot – I figured he wouldn’t be quite so visible with the mostly enclosed cockpit version I opted for. It’s not a disaster, but especially his face could be more interesting.

I like the amount of choice in this model. There were quite a few options to choose from. This is but a prelude and a training piece of sorts to prepare me for the Space Marine Dreadnought I got from Santa. I have wanted one since I was a kid and it feels… very… good… to finally get one. I hope I can do it justice.

Sidenote: The WordPress image gallery is driving me nuts. I hope the image works for most of you.

miniatures tabletop games

Finishing stuff

Walls and fences finished

Ruined corner finished

Ruined corner finished inside

Old craters finished

Chaos bases finished

Space Marine color scheme

I’ve been painting miniatures for the whole weekend. More specifically, I’ve been basing models I’ve basically completed ages ago to finally be content and done with them. I have around fifty new models to assemble, so it’s good to get some stuff off the workshelf for good.

I’m not very good with the camera so apologies for the out of focus pictures and oh god the paintjobs don’t hold up to close-ups. I don’t think they look quite that bad in real life.

Update: This CSS crap is wearing me out! I’m finished with fixing the image layout for now. I’m sorry it’s not very spiffy on IE and about the odd row overlapping an image a bit.

You might recall the walls and fences. They look so much better with bases. I’m very pleased with these.

The ruined corner piece has also been featured before. While basically done, I do want to add some detail to it, especially color. Thinking back, I wonder why I didn’t model any battle damage to the wall propers, only the broken ends… My wife proposed graffiti, and I think that’s just what it needs. I have some ideas for that, we’ll see. I have another of these buildings in the works – it’s going to be in a much less stable condition.

These craters are over ten years in the making (thirteen, I think!). I just had to finish them, even though the underlying design is not very good. They’re basically worthless as game pieces, because the sides are not tall enough to count as cover. “Difficult terrain” may be the best they’ll ever be, but hey, they’re pretty, something to cover the plain floor with. At least they’re done now. I plan to make more craters soon.

The nine models belong to my Chaos force in Warhammer 40 000. They’re actually White Wolf’s Trinity Battleground (wow, check out the animated GIF header!) miniatures from way back. These models have been painted for a long time (there’s a bunch more in various stages) and now they’re finally based. It does make all the difference, totally worth the one day it takes to base a bunch of models.

Finally, I began thinking about my Space Marine color scheme. I wanted something grey or green and this is as far as I got. It’s got base colors, single washes and the armor has been highlighted. The accents are going to be yellow (gloves, shoulder pad liners, backpack skull). I don’t know if it will be anything tasteful, I often need to go through several iterations before I settle on something good. Why is it that the official colors never feel good enough? This time I found one scheme I liked, but I just couldn’t bring myself to simply copy it.

miniatures tabletop games

Blood Bowl (Xbox 360, DS, PSP)

Blood Bowl

Back from a long blogging hiatus, lots of real work and a general burnout on gaming due to the Christmas crunch basically limiting the things to write about, it is my pleasure to direct your attention to Cyanide’s digital rendition of Blood Bowl. It’s been mentioned here before, and now it looks like they’re making progress. The site has a brand new screenshots gallery up, go take a look. It doesn’t look half bad, gotta love those obviously scanned in Blood Bowl boardgame components used as billboards in-game. Cyanide is the French getup that made a Blood Bowl -ripoff, then made up with Games Workshop and is now working on an honest, licenced product.

If I’m putting together things in a correct fashion, the game is going to be both real-time and turn-based – your choice! That’s great news right there. While the Madden franchise has proved that real-time American football can work, this was always a great boardgame first.