Battleshed Diaries

Thursday 28 January 2016

A brief encounter with a Dragon Rampant

A dip into fantasy army battles this week with my first play of the new ruleset on the block, Daniel Mersey's Dragon Rampant. Except there were no dragons. Or rampaging. There were knights who say 'Ni!' though.

With Dragon Rampant only recently taking its place on the Battleshed's rule-shelf, my regular Wednesday evening gaming session this week with Sam Pate saw our first play with these new fantasy battle rules.

It's was amusing to see my opponent, a skirmish level aficionado, arriving in the Battleshed with a look of trepidation as he opened an ancient lever-arch box file to reveal his massed (for him!) army of press-ganged miniatures that have no doubt been languishing in their cardboard barracks for long stretches of time.

Sam had only received the rules a few hours earlier, having given them a quick skim through in his lunch break at work. I'd owned my copy for a few days but had been waylaid playing other systems, so it was more Dragon Whelp Rampant for us!

As usual for our first play games, we selected a few basic units to run through the mechanics. So we both deployed a mounted, ranged and foot unit. Well below the recommended standard 24 army points, but suitable for our purposes.

I made a quick visit to my old Warhammer Empire army barracks, whilst Sam deployed similar forces from his arch-lever drop ship. I chose 6 Heavy Riders (knights), 12 Light Foot (Spearmen) and 12 Heavy Missiles (Muskets) for 11 points. I didn't take any options for these units.

Sam had 6 Heavy Riders (Knights), 12 Heavy Foot (armoured Pikemen) and 12 Light Missiles (archers) for 12 points. Again, no options used.

Sam's old-school Heavy Foot and Light Missile units, appropriate for Dragon Rampant's homage to the fantasy gaming of the 1980s (the Standard Bearer was a bit tipsy!)

One of Daniel Mersey's key objectives was to let Dragon Rampant be primarily a scenario driven game. So, as recommended, we started with the colourfully titled 'Gory Bloodbath on the Plains of Doom'. This is the standard meeting engagement battle where armies just get stuck in until they've had enough. Or are wiped out.

A quick rules overview
We diced for the Attacker (Sam) and we were off. Interestingly, we elected to start with the units off the table, needing to pass a Move order for each unit to allow them to deploy. This is where we were first introduced to the Activation sequence.

During player's Activation phase, individual units only have a single activation and need to pass a test (2D6) against the relevant unit stat depending on what they are being ordered to do. This means a unit may well do something unexpected instead. Indeed, they may just sit there with a 'you want us to do what, Sire?!' look.  Rash units maybe susceptible to Wild Charges at the nearest enemy - whether you like it or not! 

My initial thought was, I like that! This helps add a slice of unpredictability in the battles, with players having to quickly adapt their tactics as the battle progresses. Its usual to expect to test for rallying troops and suchlike but here it also applies to fresh units. It's a 'random initiative' mechanic I'm familiar with for skirmish level games, so it's good to see it represented in Dragon Rampant.

However, I then failed to activate my Light Foot. 'Oh well,' I thought, 'they'll just have to make their excuses when they arrive on the battlefield late. I'll move on to the next unit...'

Alas, this was not the case. One of the stipulations for ending your Activation phase is 'if your test is unsuccessful, your activation phase ends.' Ouch! That means fail a test and it's a turnover. Your opponent starts their activations! 

Now, this is very much a familiar mechanic - in Songs of Blades for example - but that's' a small-scale skirmish game. It adds to the sense of confusion of battle. However, I'm not sure I'm comfortable with this being applied to large unit scale battles. Yes, a unit may fail to carry out its orders; an officer couriering orders fails to arrive. But the whole army failing to activate?! Not sure about that at all.

It's a scalable D6, points-driven rule-set with models preferably individually based or on movement trays of your choice. A useful section on basing  is provided. A free QRS and Roster sheet are available to download from the Osprey site.

Moving units is very easy. They have a basic movement stat (in inches) depending on the type of unit and there are no unit facing restraints. This ties with the basic unit cohesion rule. Individual models are moved as a group as long as they stay within 3" of each other and away from the enemy. This unit cohesion restraint helps to keep the game's momentum, although it does force compromises for simplicity's sake, with multiple unit contacts for example.

Attacking is straightforward too. You can move units into contact (there are no Charge or Facing arcs) as long as at least one of its models can see the enemy. Then its 12 dice (D6) if your unit is over half strength, 6 otherwise. Attack with the units Attack Value or defend with its...well, Defence Value.  And vice versa.

Unit Strength Points (or individual models) are removed for any hits equalling the targets Armour Value. If either units take any casualties then a Courage Test, is taken for that unit which may have the troops just stepping back a bit for a breather or making a 'strategic withdrawal as fast as they can'. The unit that loses the most Strength points retreats for a given distance.

There are a few familiar modifiers such as terrain, enemy counter-charges and evades but it's a straightforward, fast mechanic and as unit stats are generic to unit types, easy to pick up.

Top: Charge men! Ni! Ni Ni!
Shooting is similar. Ranges based on unit type, with modifiers such as for shooting at long range. Line of Sight, again, is 360 degrees with no firing arcs. There are a few rules governing target acquisition, which will be familiar to most gamers. Basically the harder they hit the harder it is to activate them - and I've already mentioned the consequences of that!

Leaders can be part of a unit or even represented as a single or reduced strength unit. Your leaders are free, although do not, for example, increase the Strength of the units they join. However, leaders will have special skills to add to the command options. A Leader Traits table provides 18 characteristics that can be randomly rolled via a 3D6. These provide much fantasy flavour to your command.

Then, of course, there are the Fantastical Rules, which include many of the traditional fantasy elements, such as Spellcasting, Flying and Burrowing to Magical Arms and Armour. And many more.

Fifteen sample warbands are also included covering many of the better-known fantasy armies from Dwarves (yay!) to Rat Kin and Sand Marauders, along with their special traits and available options when building your army points. Plenty there to get the imagination started!

And this is pretty much what we tried out with our limited number of basic units.

After a few hesitative rounds of unit activations and manoeuvring units, especially for my opponent probably because he knows I'm more familiar with larger scale games, he eventually ordered his Heavy Riders to charge my Heavy Missile unit. They seemed initially to be headed straight for a clash of steel and horses with my Knights, but he apparently had a change of mind and steered them at the black powder unit instead.

However, the heavy charge into a unit bristling with muskets and blades stalled. The end result, after we stepped through the sequence, was my opponent's knights that had to retreat half their normal movement, after casualty removal on both sides

In retrospect, I only think his knights were moved back 3" instead of 5" for riders, but nevertheless the subsequent activation for my heavy missile unit would have been the same: they blasted the troublesome knights of Ni with everything they had. So much so that by the end of game time his Heavy Riders were left with a single unit strength and eventually failed to rally.

Not a great deal of action but the play-test, I hesitate to call it a game, did its job. It allowed us to work through the basic Move, Shoot and Attack mechanics.

Initial thoughts?

A good start and I like it so far. In Dragon Rampant's introduction, the author has listed 10 objectives when designing these rules. Even from this very tentative first skirmish, I get the feeling he's probably done what he set out to do.

Dragon Rampant joins the esteemed scroll of rule-sets that are free of proprietary fantasy worlds and miniature ranges. This freedom and open-ended design often helps invigorate the larger fantasy battle genre. It will no doubt  encourage players to dust off those long unused armies or source new miniatures for the army of their imagination. And that's a very good thing.

One oft overlooked aspect of rules produced by renowned publishers such as Osprey is the fantastic artwork within its covers as well as some very fine miniatures contributions from various artists. Three illustrators are acknowledged; Mark Stacey, Craig J Spearing and the intriguingly named Spanish artist 'RU-MOR'. I particularly like the Halflings Battling Ogres page 39!

As I've only had a very limited taster of Dragon Rampant I'll wait until I've played through a couple of full games at least at 24 points or more before I can conclude whether the rules have achieved their objectives. It is though demonstratively simple and quick to play.

For me, whether that simplicity itself is enough for larger scale games remains to be seen. My initial first impressions may well be tainted by my experiences with Age of Sigmar, where the rule-lite approach went too far for me - they seemed more like a quick snack than a sustainable meal.

Overall my first impressions are positive and I think Dragon Rampant, alongside it's medieval progenitor, Lion Rampant, have been released at the right time. They offer army size fantasy battles a simple, open-ended approach popular in the current wave of skirmish systems. I'm keen to try a full-scale game. Not least because I have rather large Griffin and rider looking for some employment!

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