29 October 2008

De Blob

This is one of the most fun games I've played on the Wii. It has style, wit and gleeful anarchy in play (and even more so in the story that frames it).

So. Play. You are a round blob with a funny expression, and you can soak up paint and then paint things by bouncing against them. The controls are fairly simple - nunchuk stick to guide you, flick the remote to jump, Z to target things (paintbots, bad guys, buttons, etc) to jump on them. It's basically a platform game, with the added bonus of letting you splatter paint over a blank city however you like. Each level is huge (taking an hour or so to complete) and there are a bunch of challenges - little timed tasks - that give you extra points. Some of these also stop bad guys spawning, or get rid of dangerous black ink. All good, with the exception of jumping from building to building, which is supposed to be useful and give you bonus points, except instead it is utterly random where you end up.

This is all wrapped in a glorious piece of utterly mad story. The facistic inkies have taken over the city, removing all the colour via paintbot and trapped all the inhabitants in gray suits. You are a jungle dwelling blob, recruited by the colour resistance (a few other blobby characters) to strike back. The cutscenes that start each level, and some of the story-related tasks in game, are hilarious. Best quote: "They have forced all the musicians to become accountants!" The craziness is included everywhere - the way that major buildings get redesigned when you take them back, the patterns that you can pick up to make your painting more varied, the musical stings that play when you paint something, and so on.

The multiplayer modes seem quite fun too, although so far I have only played them with my daughter, so I'm not sure how they will work when ruthless competition is active. There's no reason they wouldn't be - the competitive painting one at least was pretty neat. Also, on the topic of kid-friendliness, once you have completed a level, it can be opened in 'free paint' mode, lacking all enemies and objectives. This is a bit hit with her.

Battle Fleet by Paul Dowsell

Starts kind of weak, but once it gets going this is a great adventure story. A lot of thinking about life and death. This is number three in the series, I think I'll need to look up the earlier ones too (although from mention in this one of plot happenings, I'm not sure whether they will be consistently as good as this one).

26 October 2008

Geiger Counter: Total Eclipse

This game ran at the Fright Night 2 convention, 25 October 2008.

There were seven total in the group, some with almost no experience playing games with this much shared narration, and one person who hadbeen considering running it himself. As we got into brainstorming the film, things went smoothly right from the beginning. I had prepared some basic ideas - basically enough to guide where it went, or act as a fallback if people were short on ideas. This was plenty, especially as the game had been sold as an Aliens-inspired survival horror, which had everyone thinking in that mode to start with.

As we began to define the menace (a nano-machine based, infectious meme-complex) and setting (an asteroid mining facility with a population of about 13000), things really took off. The characters were a great selection of people from all over the facility, plus a couple of outsiders (a mining barge pilot and a military auditor). Inside we had a black market fixer, a prostitute, a soldier and an engineer. Relationships between all these characters quickly complicated things in a very satisfying manner.

Putting together the trailer was like a light version of the scene framing that comes up later, and I felt that it really helped get people into the right space this game. Also, I think we got almost everything from the trailer into the film - maybe we cut some of the exact quotes from the Colonel, but the spirit of the thing was there.

Once the film itself began, things just rocked along. The pacing seemed to work naturally, with everyone in pretty much the same space about how much horror to show in their scenes, and making an effort to include characters that hadn't had a scene, or waiting before returning to characters in trouble. I'd put together a soundtrack with a mishmash of spooky film scores and a few Darkest of the Hillside Thickets songs, and this managed to give us some appropriate music several times, and (even better) a few interesting contrasts... one was a kind of jazzy, romantic theme that came up just as things were beginning to fall apart.

We began losing characters as the menace got to eight dice (the first when it reached 7 or 8). Things began getting very tense as the nano-memes began infecting the whole complex. As their stories began to play out, we had some great subplots. The soldier shot the Colonel, and made a run for it, trying to rescue both his girlfriend and the working girl without them finding out about each other. By coincidence, those two were working together to escape to the very end. There were a few other subplots going on too, and they all got resolved satisfactorily (in a horror movie sense - the two-timer got his in the hangar bay as one of the women escaped in a rescue ship, for example). The barge pilot, was the other survivor, taking the ship out while getting her revenge on the (now meme-infected) Colonel who had wrecked her navy career, as they blew up the mining colony on the way out.

There were loads of great cinematic moments, too. Two characters who we thought we dead returned for some extra scenes, spaceships crashing, pursuit through tunnels and across the surface of an asteroid, the giant machinery that was crushing and cutting minerals out, and so on.

Overall, a fantastic game, and very smooth to run. This beta is noticeably more straightforward than the previous draft, used for my test run a few months back.

The Accidental Time Machine by Joe Haldeman

A good, kind of relaxed, kind of a modern take on H G Wells' Time Machine. I don't want to say much about the story, as discovering it as you go is part of the enjoyment. Just read it.

24 October 2008

Nation by Terry Pratchett

A bit of a change of pace, but very good. This book isn't set on the Discworld, and it's generally more serious than those books. However, the general message of practicality in difficult situations and the efficacy of science over supersitition is about as good as the message in any young adult novel.

23 October 2008

Cowboy Angels by Paul McAuley

A fantastic read. Much more techno-thriller than science fiction, although the science fiction is fairly critical to the plot ('cowboy angels' are black ops agents trained to infiltrate alternate worlds). The story ends up being very human - the hero is a retired agent, reactivated to try and bring an old friend back in. The one thing that seemed to run through it was his determination to do the right thing - not just his duty, but the right thing for the people around him too.

The friend has been murdering alternate copies of the same woman in different worlds. As we get further and further into the plots and counterplots, things stay exciting. That keeps up all the way to the last paragraph.

The way that the alternate worlds fit together, and how the one that invented the technology to travel to others deals with it is fascinating too. The technology was invented in the USA and they used it to help out alternate, and less fortunate, Americas. A lot of that help is trade, of course, so they enriched themselves too. He shows several different facets of these interactions (including with our own world, in which they are acting covertly).

21 October 2008

Under Enemy Colors by S Thomas Russell

A new Napoleonic naval series, about a Royal Navy Lieutenant who is of mixed English and French parentage. Russell uses this to provide a new spin on the utter loyalty to the British Crown that is usual in these stories.

This story concerns itself with his time as first lieutenant under perhaps the most tyrannical and cowardly captain conceivable. The military actions seem generally less stressful than just dealing with the captain under day to day life.

I look forward to further episodes in Lt Hayden's story. There's a lot of potential here - perhaps to be as good as O'Brian?

17 October 2008

The House of the Stag by Kage Baker

Another fantasy novel set in the same world as The Anvil of the World. Starts rather more seriously, but as the book goes on it becomes more like the first one. Very good.

16 October 2008

War Reporting for Cowards by Chris Ayres

This is the memoir of basically a fairly normal journalist who seems to have kind of accidentally agreed to be an embedded journalist in the 2003 Iraq invasion. He's funny - mainly self-deprecating - and his view on things is a different perspective compared to war correspondents. The book's not just about that time, either. He talks about things that led towards the experience - his history as a journalist and his experience in New York when the World Trade Centre attacks occurred, mainly.

Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley

I thought I'd read some of Mosley's stuff, on the grounds that it is generally recommended. This one's certainly a good hard-boiled novel. Easy Rawlins is an interesting detective too - in this first story, he's a recently fired factory worker and takes on the detective work essentially at random.

Once it gets going, the usual sort of violence and chaos surrounds him. The one thing that was perhaps too much are the terrible revelations that in the end lie beneath everything - and they sure are terrible.

14 October 2008

Trail of Cthulhu - Some Actual Play

We played the first episode of our was Nemesis, now Trail of Cthulhu, game last night.

The 1932 Miskatonic University expedition to excavate a suspected lost city site in the Burmese highlands got off to a good start, although they had some trouble with 'deserting' local labourers. This took a turn for the more suspicious when one of them 'deserted' by being grabbed and dragged into the lake in broad daylight. A crocodile or large eel was suggested as the likely culprit, despite a lack of sightings of either type of creature in the area. Various clues were found, suggesting that the city was many thousands of years older than expected, that a nearby hostile village might be comprised of survivors of the 800 year old suppression of the city, and so forth.

In the third week of digging they broke into an underground chamber, that appeared to be a sealed annex to the temple complex, the entries since the city was razed. The upper chamber was richly decorated with grotesque frescoes depicting slaves or captives being devoured by the gods and inhabitants of the city. Our plucky heroes continued into the lower chamber, which contained a huge basalt altar and what appeared to be an underground exit to the sea (not the freshwater lake that it ought to connect to). We ended the session as the altar was found to contain the dismembered corpses of at least two people (quite possibly some or all of the missing labourers).

We only really gave a run to the investigative side of the rules, which worked very well. The sense of resource management was interesting. When I prompted players to make a spend in this or that, there was often a bit of thought - did it seem like extra info here was going to be more valuable than extra info later?

We didn't get into any fighting, although there were a few 'sense trouble' and 'stability' rolls to be made. In fact, if those sense trouble rolls had been successful, there would have been more action and possibly fewer missing labourers. In any case, the investigators have definitely alerted certain entities to their presence now and can expect a somewhat more exciting next session. Expect a report on how lethal the system is in two weeks!

07 October 2008

Deadly Shoals by Joan Druett

Another of the Wiki Coffin mysteries. Good. Coffin is perhaps a little too good at everything, though.

Incandescence by Greg Egan

A good story in the "strange alien society" type of science fiction. By far the most convoluted physics of any of his books, although that might just be my inability to mentally visualize the world of these aliens - if you follow the link, you will see that Egan has both an easy guide to how it works, and also a non-easy one with all the mathematics. I found the easy version kind of gave me a bit of an idea how it works, but not enough to really get it all. The story of the non-industrial aliens discovering general relativity is compelling, and the parallel story of a post-human and his companion who are searching for the world is good too. I liked it, but you'll need to be prepared to either seriously engage with the physics or skim past those bits to enjoy it.

05 October 2008

The Wisdom of Ravens by me

So, I wrote another game. It's strange, and I don't exactly know how it will play. But I was inspired by this Murderland game contest, and this is what came out. It is pretty much a role playing poem (albeit longer than most), which is a form that I find both intriuging and strange. Perhaps I'll have a chance to try it out soon, and see if it works.

The Martian General's Daughter by Theodore Judson

This story is about the final collapse of industrial civilization, in a little less than 300 years. The narrator is the illegitimate daughter of a General in an empire that grew out of the USA. The book reads very similarly to I, Claudius, and Judson uses some very obvious parallels to the decline of the Roman empire. The narrative switches back and forward between her childhood (under the last decent emperor) and a present in which her father finds himself caught in a struggle for the throne.

It's a compelling story, slowly revealing clues about how the world came to be that way and how the powerful empire collapses.

Very good indeed.

04 October 2008

In The Shadow Of The Moon

A documentary about the moon landings, based on interviews with the surviving astronauts who went there. It's comprised of cuts between them talking and archival footage related to what they're telling.


If A Pirate I Must Be... by Richard Sanders

This is a biography of the infamous pirate Bartholomew Roberts. In fact, it's a bit more general than that, as Sanders goes off on various tangents regarding pirate culture, the slave trade, and so on. Roberts' career as a pirate is a pretty good framework for this. Interesting, but mainly for anecdotal stuff (Sanders goes to many primary sources).

Trail of Cthulhu by Ken Hite

Essentially, this game takes everything good from Call of Cthulhu and substitutes a coherent system in place of the (to me) utterly terrible old Basic Role Play one. Hite's the perfect author to extract the best of Lovecraft's gameable ideas, too. His take on things is surprisingly fresh (especially his take on the great old ones - each described by a variety of possible explanations, not all of which are consistent).

The system, Robin Laws' GUMSHOE, is all about resource management instead of skill ratings. Investigative abilities will automatically provide characters with the crucial clues to a case (if you have a relevant ability). However, to get extra information you need to spend points. So if you just want to haul ass after the monster, that's free, but if you want to, say, find out how to best kill it, or how it was summoned, those might cost you. I didn't really have very high hopes of this part of the game, but it is actually done rather well. Combined with the advice on mystery construction, it makes a solid basis for playing adventures through.

The other side of the system is a task resolution bit to cover fighting, chases, and other hazards that you will find. You roll a plain old six sided die, aiming to beat a target number of 2-8. In order to boost your chances, you spend points from your ability pool before you roll. It looks like it will play quick and the combat is appropriately dangerous when fighting people and (given their abilities and special powers) absolutely lethal when fighting monsters.

Character generation is pretty good. Like Call of Cthulhu, you pick an occupation that gives you several abilities that are easier to develop. You also get one or two special features based on it, e.g. Doctors can get access to hospital records and so on. You also pick a drive - something that is behind your desire to investigate weirdness. These are a good selection. They have a mechanical affect too - they can be compelled like FATE Aspects, with the reward being increased Stability (more on this below). Finally, you drop a bunch of points on Investigative abilities and another bunch on your general abilities, giving you your point pools to spend on clues and roll bonuses.

The sanity system (perhaps insanity system is more appropriate) is slightly more nuanced than Call of Cthulhu as well. I gather this is because GUMSHOE includes rules for Stability - how well a character bears up in the face of traumatic events - but not for a descent into madness. Hite has essentially mashed them together. Characters are scored for their Stability and Sanity. Stability is used to cope with shocks, and can go up and down rapidly. Sanity goes only down, either when Stability is reduced to 0 by a Mythos encounter, or directly when encountering the most horrifying of creatures. It reads like it will work fine.

The bulk of the book is given over to the descriptions of mythos creatures, general background and advice for play. This is all really good stuff - the creature descriptions stand out, with an effort made to have them not just a list of monsters, but with suggestions to make them more interesting all the way through. The advice on building a campaign is likewise solid, with a lot of good ideas, and suggestions for running the game in many different ways (including totally improvised mysteries). There's also markers throughout the book of rules, concepts and so forth that suit either 'Purist' or 'Pulp' style games. These seem to be well selected, and allow for a continuum of styles from one end to the other, depending on your choices of which to use.

Overall, a very nice Lovecraft game. I look forward to running it - which will happen soon, as I was about to run such a game using Nemesis, but Trail of Cthulhu just beat it for that position.