30 January 2008

Galactic North by Alastair Reynolds

I got pretty tired of Reynolds' stuff a while back - I find that the things I don't like pretty much balance the stuff that I do, so overall I don't get a huge amount out of the books.

In any case, I decided to give him another go with this story collection. Some of them were good, some suffered from the same things I dislike (e.g. atrocities).

29 January 2008

In A Wicked Age: The Tyrant and the Thief

My Monday evening group played a nice game of In A Wicked Age. We used the God-kings of War oracle, and got a story about a soldier trying to desert, a tyrant and his demon adviser fighting for control of the kingdom, a religious zealot trying to execute the tyrant, and a thief trying to steal some relics.

The story started fairly slowly, with the characters maneuvering for advantage. Once they had felt out the terrain of the story (and become familiar with the conflict mechanics), things began moving a lot faster. The soldier's story was resolved first, with him escaping the army with some stolen cash. The other three ended up in a series of conflicts over the tyrant and the relics, ending up with them all escaping with their goals basically met (although I got the impression some were not quite as resolved as the players may have wished).

Only one character remained on the owe list at the end, and somewhat fittingly it was the zealot. I say fittingly, because he seemed to be a supporting character in this story, against the more significant moves of the demon and thief. I look forward to seeing the story which has him as a protagonist next time.

Mainspring by Jay Lake

Strange novel about an alternate Earth that is driven by clockwork - with the planets moving along rails in the sky and so forth. The story follows a young man given a quest to rewind the mainspring of the Earth before it stops, and follows him through various strange and cool places.

The ending and overall story arc didn't really work for me, however. It was an interesting read, just for the vision of things, but I felt that it needed more resolution than Lake provides.

27 January 2008

Samurai Champloo

I should have watched this a while ago, as such a fan of Cowboy Bebop. However, when I attempted to, I didn't like it. Maybe subtitles and watching on a computer screen were the problem? In any case, I watched it on a decent-sized TV this time, and dubbed.

It's really damn good.

Basically, they made a modern, urban-inspired samurai story. This comes through explicitly here and there (particularly in some of the more silly episodes) but generally is present in the attitudes of the characters.

The animation is consistently high quality and the characters are great fun - they're a similar bunch to Spike, Jet and Faye in Bebop in some ways, but they're all moving on from their pasts, rather than letting their pasts drag them down all the time. Also, the fight scenes are fantastic. They're fast and exciting, and Jin and Mugen both have very different (and neat) styles that prevents them getting boring. They also have a healthy disregard for historical accuracy.

Recommendation: Watch them.

Death At A Funeral

Good but not great - a farce in which a funeral turns rapidly into a disaster for the whole family. Some great acting, but perhaps played too straight (with the exception of Alan Tudyk and one or two others). It suffered a little from a few extra characters and subplots that could probably have been left out in order to focus more on the main ones.

The rest of the Aubrey Maturin novels by Patrick O'Brian

I got a little bored of individual comments, so here's the overall one for:
  • The Nutmeg of Consolation
  • Clarissa Oakes
  • The Wine-Dark Sea
  • The Commodore
  • The Yellow Admiral
  • The Hundred Days
  • Blue At The Mizzen
Nutmeg through Commodore finish the best run of the books, I think. There's a general trend here of the books becoming shorter and more similar (in characterisation and prose, rather than the events chronicled). Still, it's a shame to reach the end again, and sad that O'Brian died (especially without completing the stories). However, the place that Blue At The Mizzen closes is perhaps as good a place as any for the end.

26 January 2008


Watched this one on dvd last night. I was pleasantly surprised by it. I remember not being hugely impressed by the book - it wasn't bad or anything, just not especially good either.

However, the film brings it all to life very well. The magical kingdom is just as magical as you might desire, and the acting is generally good (often over the top)... I did think that Ricky Gervais and Robert de Niro's pieces didn't quite work, however.

The special effects for some big pieces of magic were very well done, and there's about the right level of humour to contrast with the nastiness of the evil witch and princes who are involved.

Recommendation: If you like fantasy/fairy tale films, see it.

21 January 2008

Kapcon/Games on demand - Red Box Hack

This choice came up after someone - Aaron, I think - requested 'the game with the least emotional depth'. The winnowing of choices left it up, so four brave adventurers headed off to the fire caves.

My dungeon had a sketchy plot about two rival groups of imps in the caves with a delicate alliance, which the adventurers totally ignored. Instead they charged in and murdered basically everything. Once again, the quirky character types and combat system were well-received and we had a great time.

I used more arenas and maneuvering this game, which added a lot to the tactical side of things. We did have a general tendency on the players' part to hold their characters back using show off and assist moves for too long... this meant that some of the fights became a waiting game until one side went for it, with many one-hit kills (both PCs and monsters) as a side effect. Note for Eric: do you intend that there is no real way to boost up your defense to get away from a really mean attack? The players were concerned (mainly when I one-shotted their warrior who was sitting on 15 or so awesome tokens, I think) that they had no defensive option in that case. There's something in that, but I had a feeling that this might be intentional on your part... can you let me know which it is?

Their first fight - a giant wolverine - was a walkover, partly because I forgot to include the 10 mook wolverines I had written in... too bad, I suppose. Then they charged right in to the lava imp area and began showing off and assisting while the imps did some quick attacks and so forth. The party were quite cocky about the lava imp shaman and his 10 minions until the third round, when a bunch of reinforcements turned up. The imps played it cautious as the party charged and began fighting, so they were really in the thick of it when the second wave of reinforcements came in. The warrior and bear got knocked out, and the magus was preparing for a final stand, when the mystic used 'commanding voice' to make the imp chief sound the retreat. As the imps pulled back, they ran back to town with the wounded. The bear failed both survival rolls, and died, to be replaced by a longrunner. Two of the monster lava imps remained.

On returning to the cave, they explored the other entrance, and fairly annihilated the village of the steam imps. They found a necromancer (NPC) who had managed to get in, to get one of the treasures himself, and the mystic used commanding voice to make him unsummon his 'giant thing made of imp bones'. Then they killed him, only realising their mistake when I pointed out that they never defeated the bone thing and thus missed out on 40xp. Haha!

There wasn't much time left, but they quickly went back to the lava imp village and finished off the rest of them, just in time for the round to end.

Other notes for Eric:
- I think some more limitations on cross-class talents are in order... in this game, the player of the longrunner urged everyone to take 'Do two things at once (if one is running)', which made them an unstoppable parade of destruction. Maybe like niche protection: you can't have a cross-class talent if someone in the party already has it?
- Maybe add another combat action: 'Cunning plan: use your gear, the terrain, etc to gain some advantage in the combat. E.g. "I use my specialist equipment: bombs to turn the terrain into hazardous!"' Really, I just want a placeholder (and suggested mechanic maybe) for 'something else not directly about damage/movement/awesome tokens'. At the moment, there can be a temptation to just stick to the listed combat actions, because they are listed as 'the things you can do'. Adding one that encourages creative crazy tactics (as seen in both my games so far) would be cool.
- I don't think you need all that stuff about connections between arenas, beyond a little paragraph about how they might be one-way or ranged only or require a roll or something. Categorizing them as you have doesn't seem to add much.
- Some of the talents are way, way more effective than others. Is that a choice or are you still balancing them. Of particular note: the longrunner's two things at once if one is running (do anything then move) compared to warrior's charger (move then get an attack).

Kapcon/Games on demand - The Shab-al-Hiri Roach

This game, pitched as 'all about academic politics, but with an ancient Sumerian roach-god' immediately got two excited players (both only too familiar with academia), plus another who had played it before.

The game was the most restrained outing to Pemberton I have yet seen, with only one murder (committed by my character, who was a little paranoid even before he was possessed by the roach). Everyone else was maneuvering the luminaries against their enemies in a manner much like it is done in the real world (or, at least, the world of university politics).

The other thing was that everything fired on all cylinders right away - each event, scenes were quickly proposed and resolved, then followed up by others building on what had gone before. We raced through the six events of the year, with time left for a couple of InSpectres missions. That said, it wasn't like we were skipping any cool stuff... just focus on what to do each scene, and how to manage it. We did have a little less focus on NPCs than my previous games, which probably contributed to the quick finish. The four of us largely concentrated on each other in our maneuvering for reputation.

We all spent most of the game possessed, the winner luckily drawing a roach card at the beginning of the final event and casting it off (just as the other character who had already done so was possessed a second time).

A great game! The Roach is a nice one-shot, and I haven't had a game yet that wasn't hilarious.

Kapcon/Games on demand - In A Wicked Age...

I played this twice, in rounds 1 and 4.

Re-reading the rules, I note that I made one mistake about how conflicts work, but a fairly minor one that didn't detract from play (for those who care, it was they way that round one's first roll is initiative, and that the winner should declare actions and the loser respond and re-roll their dice. We just skipped the initiative bit, really, rolling against each other and then on to the second round).

The first group picked 'A Nest Of Vipers' and we had:
... A murder by strangling of an officer of the city... (ha, in play this was actually a stabbing)
... A night-wisp who devours its victims magical potency...
... A wayhouse in which plague victims hav recently stayed... (this got transformed into a warehouse by the magic of one person reading and another writing)
... A conjuror possessed of spirits of uncivil character...

The player characters ended up being the night-wisp, the conjuror, the murderer and the new officer of the city (chief justice/watch commander).

The story began with the wisp and conjuror meeting outside the city, and joining forces (the conjuror bound the spirit and added it to the collection of uncivil things possessing him). The murderer desired the victim's wife (the town priestess) for his own. The watch officer wanted to catch the murderer and execute all magicians. This led to a fun story as everyone was running around the city trying to mess with each others' plans. We had some great shifting alliances as people switched around after discovering that they had been lied to (and so forth). It all culminated in a fight between the officer and priestess and the murderer, who was slain, and then an attempt by the night-wisp to devour the power of the city's god for it's own (this failed).

Great stuff. Nobody else really knew what they were getting into... I think my enthusiasm to run the game was the main determining factor that interested people. Afterwards, two of the players said they were interested in buying the game on the strength of that story, too.

Second time around, we chose 'The Unquiet Past':
... A convocation of a ruin's ghouls, gaunts and wisps...
... An ancient stone way-marker indicating an overgrown road and the ghost of the man buried under it..
... A cruel and powerful young lordling...
... A camp physician, her pockets full of salves and drugs...

The player characters were the physician (who was from a nomad tribe), the chieftain of the nomads, and the lordling.

This story ended up being all about nomads versus the encroaching settlements. The lordling had started a colony town, to build up his power to rival his father's city. We began with him leading a surveying team, and meeting the physician at the ancient way-marker. After some initial talk, the ghost beckoned them both along the road. This road led to the ruins, where the various monsters had their convocation. Both the nomads and settlement had been suffering the depredations of the monsters, so all three characters worked together to deal with them. This culminated in a big battle, with the chieftain and lordling duelling the leading gaunt and ghoul, respectively and attempting to outdo each other in glory. This contest was a draw - they both slayed their enemies, and the surviving monsters fled into the desert.

In the aftermath, tensions between the two groups became apparent... the lordling wanted the nomads as his vassals, and they wanted the settlement gone from their range. The physician now was pursuing a cure for her nephew's blindness. A cure was suggested by the town doctors, but the lordling had his men harvest the fungus required before the physician could reach it. She attempted to steal it from them, but was caught. Brought before the lordling, this gave him the bargaining chip he needed to force the nomads to compromise... just before they assaulted the city! In the end the nomads agreed to trade peacefully with the town when they were near, and the physician was indentured to the town for a year to pay for her attempted theft (but her nephew was cured).

So... two very different stories, but both great fun to create. The oracles are fantastic at generating a grabby setting and characters, and the way that things play out afterwards was amazing to watch. The game delivers everything the text promises, and is now the one I most want to play a longer game of (beating out Hero's Banner and Nine Worlds, both now fighting for second place).

20 January 2008

Kapcon/Games on demand - The book table

This is the display of games we had available.
Only a few got to be played, but the selection was still pretty damn impressive.
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Kapcon/Games on demand

I just finished up my time at Kapcon 17 here, running our inaugural games on demand room with Steve Hickey, Malcolm Craig and Morgan Davie. It was a success as far as I was concerned - I had a great time.

I also got to play In A Wicked Age (twice!) and it turned out to play as good as it seemed like it would.

Also ran games of The Shab-al-Hiri Roach, InSpectres, and Red Box Hack. I'll post some more detailed reports on those once I have time to think about them.

It was also good socially. We had all the games stacked on a table, and plenty of interested people came to look at them, which led to some interesting conversations and various game evangelisation.

11 January 2008

The Thirteen-Gun Salute by Patrick O'Brian

This must be one of my favorite of the whole series - it has a bit of all the different things that make the books so good... the relationship between Aubrey and Maturin, some spy stuff, some real people, some fun fictional people and places, and some military action.

06 January 2008

Read-through Review of In A Wicked Age by Vincent Baker

Technically, this hasn't been released yet, but I pre-ordered it and got a preview pdf in my mail this morning.

It's short, with only a few pieces of art - they're immensely evocative of the setting, however. The setting is basically undefined except implicitly. There's the art, plus the oracles (more on these later) and these imply a version of Mesopotamia (or somewhere like that) with spirits, gods and magic.

Game play involves randomly choosing some elements from an oracle (there are four to choose from with differing styles). Each element is a little sentence - maybe describing some characters, a single character in more detail, a place or an event. Then all the characters explicitly mentioned or implicit in the oracles are listed.

Players choose one of these to play for this chapter (session). Everyone else is an NPC. Then character generation goes ahead, which is pretty simple. The oracles and system push for stories about sex, violence or sex and violence.

Then there's a bit of discussion about how to set up scenes, how to get to conflicts or build up to them. This all seems pretty solid advice.

Then there is conflict resolution, which is kind of interesting. Like Baker's Dogs in the Vineyard, there is quite a lot going on in the mechanics. In A Wicked Age seems basically simpler and also quicker (there's a three-round limit on conflicts). It's not just a simplified version of the Dogs mechanic, though... it's quite different but with a similar feel. Partly this is that the narration leads to rolls and the rolls then feed back into narration in a similar way. Looks cool, anyhow.

An important element is that if a PC gets beaten but not knocked out of the conflict, they go onto the 'we owe' list. This has two effects - the first character on the list automatically gets to be in the next chapter. However, you may also strike off a character from the list to either give them a temporary advantage in a conflict or bring them into a new chapter.

A chapter is deemed to be over when either the characters fulfill all their desires or time is up.

The next chapter gets prepared right away, with the player whose character is on top of the 'we owe' list noting down the character at the top of next chapter's sheet, plus picking the oracle that you will use for the random elements, and picking one element from the list to include. The other three elements will get randomly picked when you begin that chapter.

I'm pretty excited to give the game a try, it seems to have a nice episodic structure combined with a setting with loads of cool ideas that can be built on in play.

05 January 2008

Pirate Freedom by Gene Wolfe

Strange (like of all Wolfe's stories, really). It is about a young man who just falls from the near future back into the height of piracy in the Caribbean. In many ways, it's a reaction to all the overly romanticized pirate stories in the world, although there are still a lot of these elements to be found. The main character is an interesting chap... he was brought up really tough in early life (his father was a mafioso) but then sent to a monastery for schooling. So he's humane, but able to make hard calls too. When he finally gives in and becomes a pirate, he still tries to be as good as he can (i.e. preventing loss of life, freeing slaves, protecting prisoners from his crew).

Recommended if you like Wolfe's books (if you don't know, this is probably not the best place to start).

03 January 2008

Actual Play: Don't Rest Your Head

We played a one-shot of this one last night. It went well, although suffered a little from first time play (as GM I went a little easy on the players at the beginning, some rules issues, etc).

For a one-shot, the characters ended up being made too individual - it would have worked better if everyone was in a group (afterwards, someone suggested a sleep-disorder center, which would be perfect). A bit more time for me to think about some nightmares for each character would have helped too... two of the ones I came up with were pretty strong, but the other two were not. Having the group tied together from the beginning would help here too.

The rules work well, and the tension between wanting more dice and wanting to avoid mechanical consequences of using them was very effective.

I'd like to run this again, I think my second try will be a whole lot more fun. Especially with either setting things up better for a one-off or playing a whole story out.