29 April 2007

Espionage by Ernest Volkman

Subtitled "The Greatest Spy Operations of the 20th Century," which pretty much sums up the book.

Volkman has selected 22 cases, and devotes a good chapter to each. He covers how the operations began, their objectives and their effects on history. His writing is good, making even a few of the more dry cases interesting. Most of them don't need this, as they're pretty exciting. There's also a large number that I knew nothing or very little about.

He rounds it off with perhaps the most ludicrous operation ever, an attempt in 1945 to reduce German morale using forged postage stamps with subversive messages on them. Yes, really. (Spoiler: it had absolutely no effect on German morale).

28 April 2007

Game Chef Fallout.

So, the feedback group I was in got all organized and Jonathon Walton started a design/workshop blog for us to keep working on our games. Most of my Fade comments will go there.

This is a pretty cool result from the Game Chef contest this year.

27 April 2007

Monkey by Wu Cheng-en (trans. Arthur Waley)

Previously I had only known these stories from the old Japanese TV show. This translation is basically the same in style, although perhaps a little more coherent. Enormous fun.

Bones of the Moon by Jonathan Carroll

This is a fantasy about a woman's dream world encroaching gradually on the real world.

Although there are some nice elements to it, overall I found the story pretty unsatisfying. The main character doesn't get to do very much, instead just being there as things happen around her. On top of that, the logic between the real and fantasy worlds is unclear, which means that things seem to happen at random (including the climax).

26 April 2007

Britain AD by Francis Pryor

This is another of Pryor's companions to his documentaries on the history of Britain.

It focuses chiefly on two areas in which he argues the received view is mistaken (and I get the impression his position is becoming more widely held). These are:

  1. That the end of Roman rule in Britain did not lead to any sort of widespread collapse, but rather just changes in the way that society was run

  2. There were no large scale Anglo-Saxon invasions rebuilding England after any anarchic Dark Age.

Instead, he present evidence that the end of Roman rule was just a part of a general change in the patterns of life and that the Anglo-Saxon artifacts and traditions of these times were more likely imported by an existing population rather than imposed by conquerors.

That all seems fair enough to me, but I found that the book's focus on this argument detracted from it a little. The other two books contained more interesting stories (either directly, about archaeological digs and research, or speculative ones about how people could have lived).

25 April 2007

The Wire (series one)

This show has been around for a while, and I had basically written it off as just another forensic crime drama (a genre that doesn't appeal to me). But I kept hearing people recommend it, so finally rented it at the video store and watched it.

It is absolutely great.

The story covers a big drug investigation in Baltimore, following various characters (on both sides) with greater or lesser connection to the police team and drug syndicate. It feels incredibly realistic, and the production team are all people who ought to know (e.g. one of them was a homicide detective there). Every character is a plausible human - even those who seem one-sided at first all get a chance to show what else is going on in their lives later on. Most of the characters are not only plausible but interesting and sympathetic.

The caliber of acting, writing and direction is also very high indeed - maybe even flawless. I certainly never felt that something happening in the show made me think "What the hell? Why did they put that in?"

From a little internet research, it seems that the production team are very focused about what they want the show to do - essentially, to illustrate various sides of a city and show the good and bad stuff going on.

23 April 2007

Actual Play - Shock: It Makes Stuff Matter

So, the other night me, Make Tea Not War, Hix and talula played a game of Shock: Social Science Fiction.

We hadn't planned what we were going to play before we started, so the evening began with a discussion of various options before we settled on Shock:. We began the world-building process, discarding quite a few options until we settled on this world:
  • Issue: Technological Unemployment
  • Issue: Personal Relationships
  • Issue: Authentic Emotion
  • Shock: Immortality
  • Shock: Drive Repression (that is, government controlled and drug enabled repression of 'unsafe' emotional drives in the population).
  • Praxis: Spontaneity/Routine
  • Praxis: Sincerity/Artifice
The characters were:
  1. Robert Thoms, a drive control officer recently made redundant due to the introduction of nano-cloud monitoring. Antag was Naomi Michaels, his ex-boss. Unemployment/Drive control.
  2. Campbell Soup, an 80 year old spinster with a controlling nuclear family. Antag was her sister, Tomato. Personal relationships/Immortality.
  3. Victor, a rock star looking for any kind of meaningful relationship at all. Antag was Vaughan, a music journalist. Personal relationships/Drive repression.
  4. Lamar, one of "the first hundred" immortals, craving novelty. Antag was the first hundred. Authentic emotion/Immortality.
As you can see, the initial setup was no without some lighthearted touches. In fact, there were notably more jokes involved in the character creation than my summary suggests.

The evening was getting on, so we opted for a very short set of stories (10 Antag credits). This allowed us three scenes for most of the Protags (Campbell's story goal was so crucial in the second scene that all the credits got spent then).

And then we got started.

Immediately, play started getting interesting. Thoms began as he came home to announce his unemployment to his wife and son, with Naomi there to monitor his emotional responses and ensure he stayed under control. Melissa, the wife, was accepting of the change as she was a happy citizen with drives under control. His son took everything - including the news they must move to hive 7 - just as you might expect a five year old to so. This quickly became quite intense, as Thoms tried to hold it together.

Next we went to the Soups, and discovered a tightly bound, dysfunctional nuclear family set to remain as a unit forever (given that they were immortal). The joke names of the sisters give you some idea of the kinds of manipulation the parents indulged in. Campbell was breaking the news that she wished to go on a date with a man, and this led to all kinds of unpleasantness.

Victor's story began with a publicity interview with Vaughan that resulted in a clip from the new album being broadcast live and immediately getting trashed by critics and fans. This was the start of Vaughan's campaign against the rock star that sie obviously hated.

Lamar began pacing his house in ennui, forced to take part in a weekly poker game that may have been going on for centuries.

The next scenes built strongly and emotionally for Thoms, Campbell and Victor as they dealt with these issues and the consequences of that first scene. This culminated in the third scene with an angry outburst that had him sent for 'reconditioning' to deal with his 'unsafe emotional drives'.

Thoms was next dealing with life in the hive after their expensive apartment and his son's rebellion and unhappiness. Campbell's boyfriend came to visit and this triggered an explosive conclusion to her story as she ended up rejecting both her family and the boyfriend to find a life that actually suited her.

Lamar's story turned into a mystery as several other old immortals had disappeared. Excited to be investigating it, he broke out of the normal ways of doing things and eventually found a secret club of super extreme sportspeople (his introduction into the group was to bungy-jump 3km down into the crust of the Earth).

Victor turned things around, using Vaughan's hostile actions and publicity to ultimately craft an album that contained some real emotions and became the anthem of people in the hives. In a nice touch, the album referenced the other three stories as part of the 'real emotional' stuff that built it (universal surveillance was one of the minutia).

The thing that struck me, playing this game, was the way that Shock makes these stories matter. Even with the comical elements in character generation, the moment play gets going you care about these people. The collaborative world-building, and the way that conflicts get defined by the issues and themes that you built in, really comes home. You basically can't get away without making a statement about what you want (or want for your character).

And it gets to you, too. I had my Antag throw a huge pile of dice on to end Campbell's story, just because the conflict summed it all up. And I felt bad, rolling that pile of dice, because I wanted Campbell to escape this toxic little family unit, but Tomato was fighting that all the way.

Hix had to make a similar call for Thoms - his final conflict was him trying to make his son happy while Naomi wanted him to break down so she could have him reconditioned. And he threw all his dice on Thoms' side, just letting the character be emotionally brainwashed in order to preserve the family. That was powerful stuff.

Victor's album, that included these stories, was a great way to top it off (although maybe a little cheesy), but it really did seem to sum up a feeling of hope for this stagnant society of people living without any 'dangerous' emotions.

It was a great game, fun and moving (I felt kind of emotionally drained afterwards, even).

The Hell Screen by I J Parker

The second Sugawara Akitada novel, but set later in his career than the fourth.

This was not as compelling as the other two I have read, with one of the mysteries telegraphed so much that the only surprise was 'when will the characters work it out?'

On the other hand, the characters and historical detail are just as good as the other novels. Although not quite as good, it's still very good.

17 April 2007

Chronicles (one) by Bob Dylan

Dylan's autobiography is an odd kind of book. I wasn't initially grabbed by it, but he sucks you in with his lyrical musings on his history, where his songs come from and his thoughts on this or that musical tradition.

Agon by John Harper

Another new game, this one is set in the mythic Greece of the Iliad and Odyssey. It's also a competitive game, with all the player heroes gaining Glory for every successful roll made (and even for just rolling highest on your side of a conflict).

Character generation is fun, and seems perfect to capture the kind of character that you see in Homer. You get an epithet (with associated bonuses), for example. There's also a section in which you challenge each of the other heroes in a contest of some kind, the winner being owed an Oath from the loser (more on this later).

The basic system is very tight. It seems like it's moderately complex on the surface and has some deeper stuff once you learn it. There's some nicely balanced rules that highlight tensions between succeeding yourself and ensuring the group overall does well (e.g. any time you help another hero, you get a temporary impairment in the ability you used. And they owe you an Oath too, whether they like it or not).

Oaths are a nice touch. If someone owes you an Oath, you can call it in any time to make them help you in a contest, heal you in an interlude or follow your orders in the positioning phase of a battle.

The air of mythic Greece is evoked well, with the stories being essentially parallel to the Odyssey, as your hero band journeys from island to island after the war at Ilium. The gods are present, and they give the heroes quests that must be completed. Monsters and strange peoples inhabit the islands, so there will be plenty to fight.

Your hero will gradually gain fate points, too. These will lead to greater ability in general but eventually you hit the end of them and the hero is retired. What happens to them depends on the amount of glory they earned. They are finalized on the score sheet and you create a new hero. Yes, I did say a score sheet. It's explicit purpose is to record which hero was the best. There's also a sheet for great deeds, so you can keep track of things like the highest roll made, most damage done, etc.

The GM (here, Antagonist) has a big pool of Strife points to build opposition from. There's also a big section on building islands and quests, that looks like it will make Agon a good low-prep option.

Overall, looks fantastic. I spent a lot of time many years ago reading the Iron Crown Enterprises Mythic Greece supplement, and never played it. Well, never very successfully. Agon looks like it should deliver all the things that old game promised by failed to.

Wild Talents Actual Play

We played the first session of our Wild Talents Cold War game last night.

The rules worked pretty much as expected - solid, traditional mechanics.

Play went not so well, with our heroes going kill-crazy when the defection they were arranging began to go off the rails. Next session, escorting a family of three through 100km of wilderness while being pursued by the Czechoslovakian secret police and maybe the army too.

Another experiment of mine seems to have worked well - I determined power level randomly, so we have characters with vastly different levels of superpowers. Despite this, everyone got plenty to do throughout the mission. So that's all good. This was helped by the player who got the maximum possible picking a fairly basic damage dealing plus hard to kill package, rather than going for "I can do everything" which would probably have overshadowed the others. The players with less points opted for more generally useful or oddball powers, that seemed to provide plenty of opportunities to do stuff nobody else could.

I'm looking forward to Control debriefing them, too. I'll probably kick off with "What the hell do you think you were doing? This isn't the damn war anymore!" and build up from there.

15 April 2007

Spirit of the Century

This game has been generally regarded pretty highly, in particular as a low-prep pickup game, so I finally decided I should get a copy. Getting it out of the package was a little intimidating - it's a big book for a pickup game!

Getting into it, it becomes clear that the size of the rules is not going to detract from the ease of play. The core conflict mechanics are very simple. There's a number of special systems for certain situations (groups of mooks, car or plane chases, etc) but these are nicely self-contained and not inordinately complicated.

Character generation is absolutely inspired. You basically build up a character by answering some questions about each stage of their life and then picking aspects (more on these later) that go along with that. Then you get to the bit that makes it - you name novel your character first appeared in and write the back cover blurb. Then pick some aspects. Then you get to guest star in two other novels (and likewise, you get some people appearing in yours), adding a bit about your character to the blurb and gaining another aspect. Very cool stuff! (Aside: this one guy posted on Story Games about his group going one further... look and be awed)

So your character gets defined by skills, aspects and stunts. Skills are your basic things that anyone can learn. Stunts are the super pulp abilities you have, and there's a nice big list of them that looks to cover almost anything you might want (the stunts list is just under 100 pages long).

Aspects are player defined phrases that work as an advantage or a disadvantage in play. Basically, you can spend a Fate point (basic 'I do cool stuff' currency of the game) to get a bonus from an aspect. The cool new thing here is compelling an aspect. This normally occurs when the GM does it - basically saying 'your aspect X means you now do Y'. You then get to decide whether you do Y or not. If you do, you gain a Fate point. If you don't, you have to spend one. This seems like it's going to be pretty cool in play, given the big temptation to do the thing that will complicate your character's life in order to get the points. Nifty.

Then the book goes on to the advice section. A whopping 100+ pages of advice on how to run the game, how to run it without preparation, pulp story structure to use, some rules stuff and setting details and a sample adventure.

That advice on running the game is some of the best and most thorough that I've come across. It's packed deep with cool ideas, how to cope with this or that situation in play, how to remain focused on the characters and plenty of other stuff that you'll need in the game. Although it's focused on the pulp action that Spirit of the Century is all about, a lot of it is more widely applicable.

Overall, very cool stuff. I look forward to playing it.

13 April 2007

Rashomon Gate by I J Parker

This is the first (I think) of the Sugawara Akitada mystery novels (I read and reviewed Black Arrow a couple of weeks back).

This one is also fantastic. Great characters, a good mystery and loads of fascinating historical (or plausibly fictional) detail.

11 April 2007


Levi Kornelson has written this introductory roleplaying game Microcosm to be distributed by blog meme. There is a quiz at What roleplaying genre would you be great at? which suggests how to play it for maximum enjoyment, too.

From a quick read through, it looks like a nice system for creating solid situations that the whole group wants to play. The mechanics come down to 'pay for what you want to happen' using a store of tokens, and giving tokens from the store to people when they do cool stuff to replenish the store. I am considering using it for a one-shot game night I have coming up, with a couple of people who are fairly new to roleplaying games.

Here is my quiz result:

You scored as Comedy. You know funny, and you know how a joke unfolds while it’s being told. Put that along with a willingness to crack wise, and the ability to stay on course even while you’re doing it, and you’ve got a few of the central skills that a player needs to excel at comedy-based roleplaying.

If you’d like to put these skills to use right away, you can click and download Microcosm. It’s a free, introductory roleplaying game. If you decide to go for it, remember the awards on the left; those are ones your group may want to use.











What roleplaying genre would you be great at?
created with QuizFarm.com

Beast Hunters Update

I got the physical book version of Beast Hunters in the mail today, and thought I would mention that it is a beautiful book. The art and layout - which looked good in pdf - look fantastic in print.

10 April 2007

Britain BC by Francis Pryor

Very good, easy to read book on all human prehistory in Britain. I learned a lot of things that I didn't know previously, and his speculative takes on why people built things like henges are interesting too.

05 April 2007

A Perfect Spy by John Le Carre

Another Le Carre classic down. This provides an interesting portrait of the life of the "perfect spy." It's an cynical look at what might drive someone to live a life of total deceit.

02 April 2007

Medicus and the Disappearing Dancing Girls by R S Downie

A murder mystery set in a Roman port in second century Britain. Intended as the first of a series, there are two main characters, although one - the legion doctor implied in the title - seems to be the main detective.

In this story, he inadvertently gets involved in the mystery due to his bad luck to be on duty when the corpse is brought to the army hospital. He then ends up buying a native slave (who, it turns out, ends up being his crime-solving partner).

Both the doctor, Ruso, and the slave Tilla are interesting characters. Ruso is appealingly cynical about most things. The author also seems to be trying to get revenge on petty bureaucracy with her description of the way the tyrannical hospital administrator runs the place (to Ruso's great disadvantage).

Well worth a read.

Fade is complete

Game Chef 2007 ends in a couple of hours, and I have finished my entry:

As the Palace fleet approaches the new star, something that hasn't happened in hundreds of years, the fragile alliances and agreements between the Palaces are increasingly coming under strain.

You are a citizen of one of the Palaces, one that's currently at war.

And you're not just any citizen.

Your friends and neighbors don't know it, but you are a spook.

You are an elite agent trained to use drugs to destroy and create memories. This is how wars are fought in the Palace fleet.

The front lines of the war are memories, and enemy spooks will remodel yours if you let your guard down.

In a society without violence, power is the ability to change your enemy's mind.

You can grab a copy to read or even playtest here.

As a contestant, I will be peer-reviewing several of the other contestants games over the next few weeks. I'll post about them here.