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Dark Portents – Sneak Peek

Gustav glanced left and right, eyes sweeping along the front rank of his unit, and his spirit soared. He felt invincible. In the distance, the Orc horde massed, but he had no concern. He shifted the spear in his right hand, finding the centre of gravity as his unit stood on the left flank of the mighty army. There was no noise, but something in the air shifted. A tension intensified. They were coming. His commander bellowed, incomprehensible, but the unit had drilled until they could do this in their sleep. As one, a grunt emerged from every man in the front rank as they shifted their weight forward, driving the haft of the spear into the dirt at their feet. A second order followed and the second rank spoke as one, and spears interlaced between each pair of men at the front.

The Orcs moved inhumanly fast. Their silence was deafening, grim determination etched across every brutal face and snarling mouth and broken tooth. Gustavs unit braced, waiting for the inevitable impact as an Orc unit veered towards them, charging across the battlefield, crude swords raised.

Then, an earthshattering crash as the Orc wave met the spearwall. Chaos. Sounds of splintering wood as a spear shaft snapped, Orc bodies lifted off the floor and into the air by their own momentum. The human line held with a roar and the initial impact of the Orc charge was resisted. Without this energy, the Orc line faltered. Unable to get close, they hacked at the spears but were unable to make ground. A few surges were attempted, Orcs breaking rank and charging forwards, but many were impaled by their own charge and any that did make it met the spears of the second rank or were too few to be any challenge. Gustav dared a breath. He might live today. They might win this.

But then, screams to Gustav’s left. Confusion. A second Orc unit had charged the flank, unnoticed by any but those on the edge of the formation. Unable to turn, the men were being cut down. Panic swept across the unit. The men at the back tried to turn to meet this new threat, but spears got caught, clashing against the rank in front. Those men who remembered their drills and raised their spears to turn then found that the men in front lacked order, and lowering their weapons again was difficult. What had been their greatest advantage now became their biggest vulnerability.

Gustav could see the flanking Orcs now. Each wielded two swords, swirling and striking without regard for their own defence, just intent on hacking through the men in front of them. He looked around desperately, feeling that this was the turning point of the battle. In the next few moments, his unit would either gather their wits and form a proper defence, or they would flee and be cut down in their tracks….

 

Hello there. Marcin suggested that now things are settling down with Stars & Steel, I could use the time to talk a bit about Dark Portents. Before I do, wanted to thank you all for your reception to Stars & Steel. The general reaction to the game has been beyond anything we could have hoped for, and your enthusiasm for the game has pushed and inspired us (and Marcin in particular) to continue to develop, expand and tighten the game system. Things are not done for S&S. We still have many plans and ideas for the future of the game. Our aim now is to let the rules settle in a bit, give players time to get used to the system and what is currently available, and address any issues and expand it further after a short time. So please do continue to play your games and let us know your thoughts and feedback. We read and appreciate every comment, thought and report sincerely.

So, today I wanted to set out my motivation for Dark Portents. First, a bit of background. I have been working with Marcin for quite a few years, mostly giving input to rules that he has been lead developer for, but I am not necessarily new to rules writing myself. I was involved in Dark Realm Miniatures many years ago, and have been active in the rules development for Epic Armageddon’s fan community. I currently have two main sets of rules that I am working on (and a few secondary games) – Depth Charged, a game of post apocalyptic submarine warfare, and this one, Dark Portents.

So, the first question when setting up a new game should simply be – Why? What is that this new game will bring to the table? What makes this different and why might people want to play this game instead of what is currently available? I am broadly an old school gamer. I grew up in the era of Warhammer Fantasy third edition and ancients games like Field of Glory. I love the sight and spectacle of a ranked fantasy army, blocks of troops shielding large monsters, war machines on the flank, and knights on horse set to charge, lances lowered. However, the trend for a while now in gaming has been away from these games. Skirmish games have become hugely popular, and even the fantasy army games have moved to smaller scales – Warhammer has become Age of Sigmar, Game of Thrones units have 8 to 12 minis. That’s fine, and I understand and enjoy a good skirmish game, but for me its a snack, and I miss the meat of a mass ranked army. There is no substitute for the spectacle of a rank and flank army set out on the table.

More than this, I feel that Dark Portents has some unique features that you will not have seen in any game of this type before, and I will talk about specific mechanics at a later time. But suffice to say that its not just about the scale that I feel Dark Portent offers, but some truly new and interesting mechanics on the table.

I want to close off this interlude by setting out my goals in this project. There are some key ideas and goals that are central in the development of this game, and setting them out here might help you guys to know what I am trying to achieve here, and whether this game is something you would be interested in.

1. Dark Portents will present a new spin on the ‘fantasy lore’, but be model agnostic.

I don’t intent to produce a range of miniatures for this game, and my aim here is to present a single game which will allow players to cherry pick the miniatures that inspire them and create a force using a mix of miniatures. For example, in my playtest forces I have an Orc army made up using rank and file Orcs and Goblins from Mantic Games range, lead by a champion from Reaper Minis and a Shaman from Avatars of War, while my Human force has a leader from Warhammer, a wizard from (appropriately) Wizards of the Coast and units made up from Privateer Press Hordes and Perry Miniatures historical archers. Balancing this is something that I have a constant eye on, attempting to create a background which is unique enough to be different and interesting and still allows the right justification for a variety of miniatures. This is important because I want the background to be something players can invest in, and contribute to, and to present a different spin on the traditional fantasy mythos. For example, there are no ‘good guys’ in Dark Portents. Each race is flawed and sees itself as justified in their actions. The closest thing to a ‘good guy faction’ are actually the Orcs.

2. Crunch is just another word for flavour.

While fast play and more simple rules can be thoroughly enjoyable, the thing that gives different races and units a specific flavour are the differences in the rules. If Orcs and Humans with swords both play the same way on the table, why choose one over the other? I want a game where the flavour of the races, the units and the weapons matters. This, unavoidably, means a certain level of detail in the rules, or crunch. Now, before you run to the hills, this doesn’t mean a game that plays slowly and will take six hours to get to turn two. It just means designing a game from day one with provision and potential variety. For example, Dark Portent mostly uses D10 instead of more traditional D6. This gives greater granularity and more options. However, I am very aware of the potential pitfall of this approach in a slow playing game, and I will guard against this. The game uses alternating activations, so each player activates a unit in turn and there is always something going on and something to react to, and each activation gives the unit two commands it can use. Actions then cost one or two commands to perform. Likewise, combat uses a two stage system – check for hits, check for damage – and uses an ‘adjusted target’ roll system – essentially ‘what do I need to roll to hit that unit’? This allows control over both the dice being rolled and the target to score a hit, and keeps flavour in the rules without resulting in slowing the game down.

3. Internal realism in fantasy, guided by history

I want this game to be grounded in reality. When something ‘feels’ like it should work or has a basis of working in the real world, it should make sense and work to some degree in the game. When you charge in with knights, you have an expectation of what the result will be, and that should be reflected in the game. On top of this, as much as possible, I want real world tactics to work in the game. And, to make that even harder for myself, I want them to work naturally, and not because I created a special rule for a specific case. The rules should reflect real life enough to allow actions to result in sensible results.

4. Tactical depth, self balancing compromise

Fourthly, and finally, I want a game with an emphasis on tactical choices in the game. In real world conflict, there is no ‘best weapon’ and warfare is a constantly evolving and fluid activity. What units are used, how they are used, and how they are armed and equipped depends on who you are fighting, where you are fighting, etc. Capturing this adds a certain amount of self balancing into a system. For example, the story above is something that is a reflection of game mechanics – spears are great for holding an enemy unit at bay, but if they do get within your ranks then your asset becomes a liability. Is a spear a ‘better’ weapon than a sword? Is a bow a ‘better’ weapon than a crossbow? It depends on who and how you are fighting.

So, those are my aims for the game. I really feel that Dark Portents is a game that has a lot of potential. While I am working on setting out the rules into a book for download and making a few last minute edits, I will try to bring you a few more thoughts and peeks at the development and rules and background of this game.

So, until next time, thank you again, and there are exciting time ahead, but also…. Dark Portents!

Iain/CyberShadow

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