Red Sand, Black Moon: Dwarf vs Elf, Playtest #1

Two men enter, one man leaves!

Go figure, I said I was tired of combat as a conflict resolution mechanism but in my search for narrative across solo roleplaying blogs (the Solo Nexus is a good place to start), the following ideas gelled together in my head.

  • Until Fantalonia talked about it, it never occurred to me that I could print cardstock and paper miniatures at a reduced scale of two pages to one sheet of paper and that would approximately shrink it down to 15-20mm scale.

I’ve always been used to the 25-30mm scale, which looks great, but is a bitch to set up on the dining table with your family giving you dirty looks because that’s where one is supposed to eat, not arrange a giant diorama (that cannot be moved) on top of it.

For solo wargaming, 15mm is much more portable, easier to find an undisturbed surface to play on and easier to store. Pretty compelling reasons for giving it a try.

  • Here’s another blog that uses Red Sand, Black Moon rules in a post-apocalyptic setting. Gorgeous looking paint jobs on the minis.

I’d previously flipped through a couple of cheaper old and free rules from their website. Their main differentiator is what they term a Chain Reaction mechanic, which allows for both sides to react and exchange fire in the same turn, rather than passively waiting for each other in standard “I go, you go” turn-based fashion. There are generally also mechanics for a sort of “NPC AI” which allows a solo gamer to play one side and make decisions for that side, while letting the rules and random dice control the movements of the opposing side.

But until now, I never seriously bothered to learn any of their rulesets or playtest them because learning the rules involves a fair bit of flipping up and down pages, referring to a lot of tables, and cross-checking like mad, hoping you didn’t miss a crucial sentence and screw up the reactions or NPC AI, wondering when the hell you’d finally internalize the rules to make them second nature and reduce the frequency of all that checking.

Two gladiators now, that seemed easier to get a grasp on, rather than multiple squads of people.

I had an earlier version of their ancient gladiatorial combat rules, Red Sand, Blue Sky, but after flipping through it, it looked like the newer versions had undergone some serious refinement. New arena and zones of movement concept, instead of measuring inches, and so on. So I bit the bullet and bought the Red Sand, Black Moon rules, which would offer guidelines on adapting fantasy figs, rather than cleave faithfully to Roman gladiatorial combat styles.

(To be honest, I’m not terribly in favor of the lethality of vanilla RSBM fights though, so I might pick up their new RSBS rules some day or try to figure out based on the old rules if there’s a way to shove in some defeated/yield/surrender mechanics. But that’s a project for another day.)

Still, if I was going to learn the rules, best to play it as directed.

Browsing One Monk Miniatures yielded up some free paper models from their Forum Hoard that inspired the arena setup and narrative setting. We’d start simple, mano a mano combat between two characters and ramp up the complexity from there.

First off, a very simple tournament of four. Two fights of 2 vs 2, and the victors will fight each other.

A prisoner’s dilemma it wasn’t. The goblin capered and cackled as he translated the orc shaman’s guttural speech into the common tongue. “You step in magic ring, we give you back armor and axe. You fight. For glory of Blood God. Last one who stand, we let go free. Dead ones, we eat.

If you not fight, then you useless and we also eat.”

Kordan Stonebreaker glared back at the creature through the bars of the cage as he cracked his knuckles, thick fingers knotting  as he imagined wringing its scrawny neck. Not only did this orc tribe have goblin hangers-on, they had three very big ogres to back them up. Still, the only way they’d caught him was cos he was stone drunk and napping at the time.

“That’s fine by me,” he rumbled. He’d seen the other three prisoners. A pair of humans and a stinking elf. None of them looked to be much trouble, his freedom was pretty much there for the taking.

It figured, they’d match him up with the pansy elf first. Kordan threw on his helmet and his chainmail in a hurry, watching out of the corner of his eye the elf putting on some leather armor and testing the weight of a short sword.

The orc shaman had drawn a circle of blood demarcating the boundaries of the fight. Palpable dark power emanated from the clotted liquid, making the hairs on the back of his arms stand on end. The dwarf resolved not to go anywhere near it.

“Fight fight!” screamed the little goblin as he waved a spear much too big for him.

“Let’s get it over with,” Kordan said, hefting his axe with both hands, and marching toward the centre of the circle.

The elf didn’t move, just frowned with furrowed brow, his sword slack in his grip.

(Round 1: Dwarf wins initiative and moves toward centre of the arena. Elf stays where he is.)

Kordan again took the initiative and stomped dead centre into the ring. “Come on, elf. Whaddya afraid of? I ain’t gonna ‘et you. They are!”

The elf met his eyes and walked steadily forward. “Look, dwarf, I don’t want to fight y-“

(Round 2: Dwarf wins initiative and moves into centre of the arena. Elf approaches one zone towards dwarf.)

“Too bad, cos I do,” Kordan charged, axe raised. It clanged against the elf’s swiftly raised sword. They circled, the elf easily matching the dwarf’s movements. A few exchanges later, Kordan moved back, unable to find an opening.

The elf pushed into the centre, angry now, raining down a flurry of blows, which Kordan blocked adroitly with the haft of his axe. Unable to press any advantage, the elf also backed off.

(Round 3: Dwarf wins initiative, moving into elf’s zone. Rolling for maneuvering, adding the successes to speed and other modifiers, they both end up with an equal number of successes. The Maneuver Table indicates the result as the active player unable to find an opening to attack and moving back to the zone they started in.

Elf’s turn, he moves up, maneuvers, equally matched success again, and he moves back to where he started.)

Breathing heavily, the elf told him, “Don’t you see, this is f-“ He broke off in mid-sentence to dodge the dwarf’s charge yet again. They exchanged more blows, the elf steadily increasing the speed of his attacks to a point he hopes the dwarf cannot match.

Panting, Korgan appeared to slip. A triumphant lunge by the elf became an expression of shock as the dwarf neatly sidestepped and brought his axe down. It came down on the elf’s left arm, and bounced right off the suddenly-appearing sphere of blazing energy with a shower of sparks. The shield saved the elf from harm, but the force of the blow sends the elf sprawling facefirst into the ground.

(Round 4: Elf wins initiative, and catches his breath where he is, regaining one bonus dice. The dwarf charges in, the elf wins the maneuver by 1 success and attacks. He scores only 1 success higher than the dwarf. Attack Table indicates the result is to re-take the Attack test, discounting weapon reach and the previously used bonus dice. This time the dwarf wins the attack, 4 succcesses to the elf’s 1 success.

Attack Table result – attacker lunges aggressively, defender steps aside. Attacker is forced into the movement zone directly behind the defender and is now knocked down. Defender scores hit on attacker as he goes by.

Rolling for hit location yields the elf’s left arm, which is conveniently his shielded arm, which protects him from damage.)

“Pah, magic-user,” Korgan spat. Before the elf could recover and get back up, the dwarf ran at him and aimed a series of attacks at his back. It took all of the elf’s agility to block and counter, as he flipped over to face Korgan, just in time for the dwarf to find a way past his defences.

The axe bit deeply into the elf’s chest as the elf threw himself back wildly, narrowly missing the blood barrier of the fighting ring. His nimbleness spared himself a lethal injury to the heart, but Korgan could see blood soaking into the leather regardless.

The elf scrambled upright, his breath coming in pained gasps. He paused to catch his breath, sword in a guard position.

(Round 5: Dwarf wins the initiative. He moves into the elf’s zone.

I had a moment of puzzlement here as I tried to figure out if this meant the dwarf had rear facing on the elf. If the elf fell forward, it would make sense that the dwarf could attack his unprotected back. This was quite important as attacking someone’s rear meant discounting Speed successes, which normally add on an automatic success per point of speed. The rules were also a little unclear as to whether just the rear attacked victim had to discount the speed successes or both.

I eventually decided to allow rear facing and discount just the elf’s Speed, which made for a very lethal maneuver in favor of the rear attacker. 8 successes for the dwarf, 3 for elf. Winning by 3+ successes meant you could bash attack, bite or tail attack, as well as attack an unshielded side. Despite Korgan’s bar-brawling habits, I doubted his bite attack would amount to much, and there was no point to bashing since the elf was already on the floor and would regain his feet on his turn. So attack unshielded side it was.

Luck of the draw, the elf rolled 1 dice and scored 1 success. The dwarf rolled 7 dice and scored only 2 successes. Re-attack again, but this time the elf turns to face opponent.

His luck runs out, the dwarf has 5 successes to his 1, pushing him into the next zone against the arena’s wall. Rolling for hit location and damage, the dwarf scores a serious wound to the chest (-2 to that location, the elf has essentially 3 hitpoints there, equivalent to his strength, narrowly avoiding getting killed outright) and would have knocked down the opponent, except he was already down.

Elf’s turn, he jumps to his feet and catches his breath, having run out of bonus dice defending madly while knocked down.)

Korgan flung himself at the elf again, hewing mightily as if trying to chop down a tree. But the elf defended well, with a fast one-handed movement of his blade, and forced the dwarf back once more, leaving himself yet again a space to recover.

(Round 6: Dwarf wins initiative, he’s low on bonus dice too, but I wanted to press the advantage and charge at the elf again. Maneuvering, they’re evenly matched, the dwarf retreats to his zone. Elf stays where he is and catches his breath again.)

Then the elf moved purposefully on Korgan, attacking him head on. It took all of Korgan’s skill, including some won at bar-brawling, to counter the elf’s rush at him. Their weapons locked together, the dwarf growled and lowered his head, thinking to headbutt the elf.

Oh crap, went through his mind in one swift shocked instant as the elf somehow twisted his blade out of the lock faster than he thought possible, and took advantage of the opening to bring the sword down onto his head.

The clang of metal striking metal was as loud as a hammer hitting an anvil. The dwarf reeled back blindly into the centre of the circle.

Then it was the elf’s turn to look shocked, as Korgan’s eyes uncrossed, and he shook himself like a dog to shake off the impact. He reached stubby fingers up to his battered, dented helmet to feel out the extent of the damage. The force of the blow had sent the edge of the helmet deep into his brow. Blood flowed freely from the gash, but it just looked worse than it really was.

The dwarf spat again, “That the best you can do? I’ve had worse headaches waking up after a night of two dozen pints of Skullsplitters’ finest.”

(Round 7: Elf wins initiative, moves into dwarf’s zone. Maneuvering yields a head on attack for the elf. Evenly matched successes, it’s a draw, both remain in the same zone.

Dwarf’s turn, they maneuver, and the elf wins an attack to his unshielded side. Elf wins the attack roll by 3+ successes, pushing the dwarf back into the arena centre, and rolls a hit location of the head, causing me to stop breathing as I was sure this was the end for Korgan.

Between the elf’s puny strength and Korgan’s armor class, he only manages a Wound of -1 str on the dwarf’s head, and I didn’t even have to bring any dwarf Signatures into play. Korgan has 5 str, so his skull is very thick. 4 hitpoints left. Phew.)

But both fighters were exhausted after that exchange, and they spent a mutual moment breathing hard, their eyes locked on each other, alert for the slightest movement.

(Round 8: Elf wins initiative, and catches his breath to regain a bonus dice. Dwarf is also out of bonus dice, and I decide to let him take advantage of the breather to recover one too.)

The elf, deadly serious now, came at Korgan with a furious flurry, steering the less maneuverable dwarf in a circle. He slid his blade through an opening but it barely scratched the links of Korgan’s chainmail. It left himself open in turn for Korgan to press an attack, but the elf again twisted out of the way in the nick of time. Once more, the elf narrowly just missed scoring another hit, and aggressively attacks yet again.

Which proved his undoing as he fell for one of the dwarf’s feints and lunged forward a mite too far. Off-balance, he staggered and Korgan helped him on his way to the floor as his axe dug deep into the elf’s right arm, tearing into the muscle.

The elf had no time to worry about that wound as the dwarf followed up by jumping right on top of his back and bringing his axe down on the elf’s neck.

The guttural cheers of the orcs and ogres around him heralded his victory as the elf’s severed head rolled to a stop against the blood barrier.

(Round 9: Elf wins initiative, moves up to the dwarf’s zone. Maneuvering, he gets to attack the dwarf’s unshielded side. The dwarf wins by 1 success, re-take Attack test, the elf wins by 1 success, re-take Attack test yet again, then the dwarf wins by 3+ successes. Again the defender lets the attacker lunge past and whacks him as he goes by. The dwarf rolls a hit location of the right arm, which is unshielded, and dings the arm for -2str (aka hitpoints, again the elf narrowly misses having the entire thing chopped off.)

Dwarf’s turn, the rear attack maneuver is like taking candy from a baby – easy, mean and vicious as hell. He rolls a hit location of head, rolls for damage and scores a Killing Stroke!)

“Good! Good! You wait. One more fight, then you fight winner!” screeched the goblin.

The orc shaman was drawing up a new blood circle, the ogres escorting the two humans into it. They flung the fighters’ belongings onto the sand as the shaman finished his chanting.

Korgan looked grimly on from his circle, intent on studying the techniques of his next would-be opponent, the last obstacle to his freedom.

Wow. I’d thought I’d skewed the fight in the dwarf’s favor by giving him Star attributes (5 Savvy, 5 Strength, 4 Speed), since I chose to play him and I wanted a simple fight for my first rules-learning attempt. But the elf (4 Savvy, 3 Strength, 5 Speed), played entirely as an “NPG” or Non-Player Gladiator, moving according to the rules and dice rolls on a table, put up quite a fight.

He’d randomly rolled a Signature trait of Poser, which gave him a 2 dice advantage on maneuvering, but a 2 dice disadvantage on attacking, until he inflicted his first damage. I interpreted it in this context to mean that he didn’t have his heart entirely into the fight at first, as opposed to say ‘playing to the crowd’ posing a typical gladiator might do. His other racially given Signatures, Nimble, Slippery, Strong-Willed were quite effective at simulating how an elf might fight.  That is to say, he was pretty much dancing circles around the dwarf when he maneuvered, especially in combination with his speed.

The dwarf, on the hand, had Signatures of Mass, Resolute and Stout, making him really tough and hard to knock down – though these weren’t really tested in this battle. I picked a Hard as Nails Signature for him as a Star, and his random Signature turned out to be Vicious – giving him two extra Attack dice if he won the Maneuver. Which really made him very nasty when he managed to rear attack the elf twice. The dwarf’s higher Savvy (aka battle prowess) also gave him a slight advantage over the elf when they tangled up in combat.

The bonus dice mechanic was also interesting, simulating a kind of endurance and energy. It really swung the battle back and forth as I had to figure out if I wanted to spend the energy to press the attack or conserve it to defend or attack later, whereas I had no control over when the NPG would decide to spend his bonus dice. There’s an algorithm for that, where you roll all of the NPG’s bonus dice and he will use it if it comes up 1, or 1-2, or 1-3, depending on the situation. There was a round where the elf blew 5 bonus dice and me, having forgotten to declare the dwarf’s bonus dice first, decided to play it fair and say the dwarf spent none.

There’s also a fair bit of luck involved, which yields the element of surprise and emergence for someone playing solo. Just because you get to roll 7 dice only means you might score more successes (rolling 1-3 on a d6). If the dice don’t go your way, you might get less successes than you’d expect. This is adjusted by modifiers here and there to simulate various Signatures and change the probability of something happening.

The whole thing from printing and cutting up and gluing minis, reading the rulebook, assembling the arena and all took the better part of a night, 5+ hours or so, including the fight that took 3-4 hours. But that was me being a big rules stickler and a very slow learner, going backwards and forwards on the iPad with the pdf rulebook. I don’t think that particular racial match up helped either, fast squirmy bugger versus rabid stout rock made for a long back and forth fight.

I was also slowed down by the dice rolling. I went electronic some time back with the Dicenomicon app, but I was getting ready to murder something with all that flipping back and forth between it and Goodreader, where the rules were, so I grabbed the only three tangible plastic d6s I had to hand. Not enough to work with, I’d recommend having a good 10-15 of ‘em for faster play, possibly one color for one opponent if at all doable. Gotta dig mine up from wherever they’ve gone for the next time.

With more rules familiarity, it’ll likely go faster, but there is still a lot of tables and special Signature skills to cross-reference.

I am liking the scale. I think by conservative accident, I only shrunk mine to slightly taller than 20mm (it’s about the old Ral Partha 25mm scale mebbe), but with the small arena format, the whole thing fit neatly into an A4 sheet of paper, which these days, is more realistic to maintain and store in the house without mouldering and dust collection than the dreamy ideal grassmats mounted on specialty art store foamcore boards of youth.

All in all, a pretty nice game and a good change of pace. It’s not THE narrative holy grail that I’m still looking for, but I’m glad I tried it. Chalk up one more game in my repertoire.