31 December 2005

December's Reading

Well, I've managed to keep this up for a year. So has Make Tea Not War. Yay us!

Books read this month: 8
Total for the year: 146

Long Haul by Antony Johnston and Eduardo Barreto. Western heist comic, okay but leaves you wanting more character development and something more gripping in the resolution.

Longitude by Dava Sobel. Okay, not too great. She pushes certain themes beyond what seems to be supported by actual records.

Forgotten English by Jeffrey Kacirk. Interesting miscellany of archaic terms. I would have liked to see more of them, and more really obscure choices, though.

The Big Splat
by Dana Mackenzie. A really good book about how the moon came to be. Includes a thorough and interesting history of pretty much every development in Lunar science.

Counting Heads by David Marusek. A strange beast. It's a fascinating piece of imagined future, but a disappointing novel. Marusek uses far too many neologisms (virtually all of them unnecessary) and the story sprawls all over the place - to the extent that you can't tell what it's actually about until the end. Worth reading if you want to explore some nifty ideas about a world filled with hostile nanotech and cloning. Personally, I think there are the seeds of about three really good novels in there, none of which are developed in this one.

Shaman's Crossing by Robin Hobb. Really good fantasy. Toys with some cliched concepts but never quite gets to the point it annoyed me. Very much a 'first book of trilogy, it doesn't manage more than establishing the characters and setting up the hero's story. And it's long - definitely could have done with some extraneous descriptions being cut down. Still, all that stuff is really just minor flaws in a great book.

Under The Black Flag by David Cordingly. Second time for this book, an excellent history of pirates. The focus is on European pirates of the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries, but with some discussion of others. He also spends a lot of time talking about pirates in fiction and popular culture. Excellent. If you are interested in pirates at all, you should read this.

The Call Of The Weird by Louis Theroux. Theroux revisits several people he had previously interviewed for various documentaries. Interesting stuff, as he tries to understand why these people believe the absolutely crazy stuff that they believe and tries to work out why he himself is fascinated by them. Thoughtful, funny, and well worth the read.

20 December 2005

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay: Session Three

Here's the summary of session three.

Main win: they didn't kill any innocent people.
Main system note: Luke's simplified critical rules worked just fine.

What happened was that our heroes had been behaving rather suspiciously, so were being watched by some evil chaos cultists. After seeing them murder that guy in an alley, the cultists decided that our heroes were potential recruits rather than a danger. So they ask them to join. Thomas and Orzad head off with the guy to the temple of Khorne the Blood God and just as the high priest gets ready to magically oathbind them into Khorne's service, they run for it.

Larelin (sp?) had been shadowing them and was waiting outside. Thomas made it out the door before being attacked and Larelin started shooting at the cultists leaving the building. Orzad was caught in the middle and used his Entertain: Clowning to caper around some of the bad guys. Thomas was unfortunately brutally almost killed (fate point spent to save him). The other two managed to prevail by the skin of their teeth, killing almost all the cultists (some ran off).

They then went back to the Cosmopolitan club and told Rudiger of their discovery. He brought in some uninjured muscle to finish the cultists off. The sorcerors, however, were gone. On the up side, they had sumomned some blood demons to meet the witch hunters. The demons were slain and the building burnt to the ground.

Our heroes then went back to their original task, being told that this group wasn't the main one. They worked out that Ivan, one of the membership committee, was a chaos agent and found some incriminating evidence at his lodgings. Now they just need to work out what to do about it...

Oh, and find Ulric. His player was away, so I decided he had scarpered. We'll find out what has happened to him next time.

Lots of fun, overall.

12 December 2005

Badass Space Marines: I Need Reader Input

I think there's a good game here, and one part that I really like is the idea that the scenario gets built up as the game is played using a worksheet sort of thing.

The intention is to have a single session, no preparation-required game.

So I intend to include predefined squads of space marines and a sheet with 'what's going on' that starts off blank (or blank in the most important parts). All players will have a spendable resource that they can use to make a theory or comment about what's going on into the real fact of the matter.

Mission Phase Zero:
The first scenes are played as the marines approach the destination and discuss the mission parameters (i.e. the wake-up scene in Aliens). Mysterious elements will initially be invented here.

Mission Phase One:
The marines arrive at the destination and begin investigating. The gamemaster presents clues and the players make up explanations about what happened. Player characters will not be attacked at this time, but non-player characters might be killed - especially if they wander off alone.

Mission Phase Two:
The aliens (or whatever) begin attacking the marines openly. This is when the action really kicks off and the 'what happened' question will be answered. The capacities of the aliens/opposition will also be nailed down here.

Mission Phase Three: (probably initiated when all extra characters are dead)
The aliens may now be defeated (or the remaining marines might escape). Establishing how to do either of these things will be all that's left to be determined.

That's the plan.

I plan to set up either templated worksheets that present basic scenarios with some important blanks to be filled in and/or a bunch of tables to give you facts (with blanks) that can be completed. Probably a bunch of mysteries for the gamemaster to use as well. However, I find myself pretty uninspired with this sort of idea... I appeal to my readers to help me out here...

I'm looking for ideas in this kind of form:
Phase Zero:
- There's a civilian observer along, an expert on _________.
- The destination is _________.
- Squad member _________ is newly transferred in, and hasn't earned anyone's trust yet.
- Squad member _________ has a secret problem: _________.

Phase One:
- The colonists (or their bodies) are all discovered to be in _________.
- A survivor is discovered, who reveals that _________.
- It appears that the colonists had time to _________ before the end.
- It appears that whatever did this could _________.

Phase Two:
- The opposition are _________.
- They are superior to humans in _________.
- They are resistant to _________.
- They want to _________ people.

Phase Three:
- We can kill them if we take off and _________ the site from orbit.
- We can escape if we _________ before _________.
- They are especially susceptible to _________.
- They have already reached _________.

Any ideas appreciated (and will be credited in the final version, if any).

08 December 2005

A cool game idea: Badass Space Marines

Over at the forge I have written up the (very) basics of another game. I really like this idea, so expect to see more in the near future. Comments welcome, either here or on that thread

06 December 2005

More Warhammer Actual Play

I am planning to put an actual play post up for each game session in future. Partly to explore things that happened, partly to keep track of events. Last night we played another session of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay.

The session began with Rudiger the witch hunter telling our heroes to infiltrate the Middenheim Cosmopolitan Club, a front for a chaos cult (apparently). Our heroes elected to simply wander up and try to join. We played out some scenes where the membership commitee (played by three of them) interviewed the character of the fourth. This was a lot of fun and led to just two of them being accepted into the club.

They spent the evening trying to discover clues, with some small success.
  • Orzad the dwarf discovered that his missing brother had been a member of the club and was now a member of the youth gang "the Krapz".
  • Thomas the halfling attempted to gain the trust of a group of intellectuals and was hampered by his illiteracy and total lack of formal education. He ended the evening by almost being mugged.
  • Ulric found a friendly clique of persons with alternative personal lifestyle choices.
  • Larelorn (or whatever) the elf spent the evening with a lady from Tilea who joined the club because she likes elves.
The next day, Thomas and Ulric got thrown out of the club (they were the ones who failed to get membership) and the group realised that they had made little real progress in discovering the chaos cult. To remedy this, they assaulted a Estalian poet (one of the bohemian intellectuals) in a nearby alley. He turned out to be a decent swordsman rather than a weedy pushover and... well, things arise.

Sessions: 2. Innocent people killed: 2. Chaos cultists apprehended: 1.

I'll keep that score going, I think.

Overall, we had great fun. Still need to do something about the critical system, though.

01 December 2005

November's Reading

Here goes another month... 8 books read, year's total 138.

See also Make Tea Not War's month.

Recursion by Tony Ballantyne. Strange book. Some awesomely interesting ideas about post-singularity humanity (with advanced artificial intelligence and self-replicating machines) that is let down by strangely missing plot. Ballantyne's characters basically have stuff happen to them and explained to them about the stuff that is going on. The failure of the characters to really do anything means that the book felt totally unsatisfying. The story told should have been the first few chapters of a novel that then had the characters actually step up and deal with the issues posed. Great if you want a bunch of exposition about an imaginary future society. Bad if you would like the characters to explore the consequences of that society. This would be a much more negative review except for the fact that the future he imagines is extremely cool.

Someone Comes To Town, Someone Leaves Town by Cory Doctorow. A very very strange book. Kind of like what you might get if Nail Gaiman and Bruce Sterling collaborated on a novel, but that might be unfair to Doctorow. Let's call it 'bizzaro modern magic stuff'. Cool.

The Next Fifty Years edited by John Brockman. A collection of essays from prominent scientists, each discussing what they expect from their discipline in the next fifty years (from 2002 that is). With a few exceptions they were all interesting and well written. Even the exceptions weren't really bad, just not as good as the others. Worth a read.

The Mists of Everness by John C Wright. Continuing on after The Last Guardian of Everness, we have the main characters trying to recover from pretty much losing the whole world in the first book. Good.

The Oceans by Ellen Prager and Syliva Earle. An excellent layman's overview of the state of the art in ocean science. Also, did you know tuna could grow to three meters long? That's a big fish.

Concrete: Think Like A Mountain by Paul Chadwick. Just as good as the other Concrete stories I have read. Looks at the ethics of direct action to protect the environment. Read this.

Captain Alatriste by Arturo Perez-Reverte. Swashbuckling, Dumas-style conspiracy in seventeenth century Madrid. Lots of fun. The main characters are all neat. The only downside is that it's basically just an introduction to the characters. Apparently there are four or five other novels in the series, soon to be translated into English. Huzzah!

Iron Coffins by Herbert Werner. Memoir of a U-boat captain in the second world war. Scary, fascinating stuff.

21 November 2005

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay: First Session Impressions

The regular guys played our first session of WFRP just now. It was good - the irreverence in the game world was a good fit for the group. This meant that the jokes worked well, which pretty much took up the first half of the session.

Making up the characters was great fun. We have:
  • An unemployed dwarf clown (he left his previous employment for "artistic reasons").
  • An elf kithband warrior (kind of their woodland militia) who really wants to be a magician and figured that hanging out with a guy who hunts down evil ones is a good place to learn about it.
  • A human vagabond who is fighting chaos out of misplaced liberal guilt - he is trying to make up for the fact that humans are the most susceptible to corruption by the dark powers of chaos.
  • A halfling hunter who, well, he's just a bit of a weed really.
Three of the characters (our fourth is lazing around on holiday in Hawaii right now - for this he misses my game!) were given a task to prove themselves to their master Rudiger, a Witch Hunter. First they spent a bit of time making fools of themselves at the tavern he was going to meet them at (totally messing with his plans to keep it quiet). They were to track down a chaos sorcerer in the village while he dealt with more pressing matters, armed with a document that none of them can read to give them authority.

The elf headed out of town to search suspicious farms, finding nothing. The human and dwarf tried to find out things at the tavern but all they got was pointed at the local healer (due to a local thinking the dwarf had a personal problem that needed some strong herbal remedies).

They began questioning the healer, which didn't go very far until they blurted out that they were witch hunters. She immediately figured they were going to have her executed and freaked out. Following some of the random comments she blurted out they eventually found a chaos shrine in the cellar of a burnt out farmhouse. They had brought the healer (bound and gagged) with them and when the vagabond heard a scary noise he dropped her and bolted. The giant three-eyed chaos frog promptly ate her.

Our heroes gradually got their act together and slew the frog. Then they headed back to the tavern to rest (and hopefully ponder the needless death of an innocent woman).

Next morning they tracked down the chaos cultists to a hut in the wood. They assaulted it, and there was an exciting fight as the elf basically killed the three thugs and the other two captured the sorceress and finished off one guy.

The sorceress was handed over to Rudiger and all was well. Except for the healer (I think they pretty much kept quiet about her fate, hoping nobody would ever find out).

Setting is good, the Warhammer world is a grim and fun one and the new edition of the game has this shining through. Especially the careers, which are at least as cool as the ones I remember from the first edition. The mechanics work well enough, especially as I was pretty much running it as conflict resolution even though it's written as task resolution. Combat doesn't allow that, but it runs smoothly. There are a few tactical options but they're not confusing.

The only thing that annoyed me was the critical hit system... it's far to complex. After rolling to hit, the victim rolling to dodge or parry and then hit position and then damage being calculated (another roll with modifiers). Then, if it is a critical, you roll another percentage dice and look up on a table on the column for how much excess damage there was to get a number you then look up on a table for the hit position was the actual effect was. I'm pretty sure that you would get the same result with something like d10+excess damage on the critical table for the position. I'll consider checking the effects there, because it was an enormous hassle to do that. And every fight to the death will have some - you only kill people with critical hits. The system is that damage wears you down until you run out of wounds (typically 2-4 hits) and then you take criticals that can maim or kill you.

Overall: pretty good game, and a hell of a lot of fun for our group.

17 November 2005

Recent Game Impressions: Polaris and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay

They're not a natural pair. In fact, it's hard to imagine a greater contrast. I haven't had time to think in detail about these games but I want to introduce them and compare.

Polaris is about somewhat elfin knights at the north pole fighting the demons that are inevitably going to destroy their kingdom. The narration duties are split up unusually. Four people play the game. For a scene about your character, the person sitting across from you creates adversity and the people to your left and right play the roles of the two types of NPCs (those you have an emotional relationship with and those who are related to you mainly by your role in society). All the main characters are doomed. Game play is highly ritualised. For example conflicts are resolved using specific phrases to let the others know what you are doing. The expectations for each player at each stage of the game are well-defined and the setting is extremely cool. The art and design of the book feed into the feel as well. My main problem at the moment is that there are five of us in my gaming group, so we can't really play the game (there are suggestions for playing with three or five players, but I feel like they would be sub-optimal). Overall, looks great.

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay is about various adventurers having adventures. It's the second edition but stays true to the style of the first edition back in the 1980s. The career system is still there and just as cool as I remember. It's also terrifyingly old-fashioned in other ways. It suggests that the GM may want to purchase a screen so that the players can't see you cheat, and the introductory adventure includes instructions to simply not let the player characters do certain things that will derail the climax of the story. It's pretty shocking to meet this again after playing Forge-type independent games for a while, but I am confident that all this crap can be ignored. The system is basically sound and the setting extremely fun. Tweaking task-based into conflict-based resolution won't break anything in there and I can write my own stories (by which I mean "set stuff up for the players to choose where the story goes") easily enough.

We'll be playing Warhammer for the next while, so expect a more detailed post on how it plays later.

31 October 2005

October's Reading

Here goes..

See also Make Tea Not War.

Total this month: 9.5, which I'm going to round up to 10. Total this year: 130.

The Eagle's Conquest, When The Eagle Hunts, The Eagle and the Wolves and The Eagle's Prey by Simon Scarrow. The other four books are just as good as the first one. The plots get a bit more outlandish as they go - he's definitely after thrilling adventures more than historical accuracy.

Hello Laziness by Corinne Maier. Amusing book about why and how to slack off at work.

Newton's Wake by Ken McLeod. Excellent, fun space opera. Perhaps his best book since The Star Fraction.

The Terror by David Andress. A history of the French revolution. Didn't finish this due it needing to be returned to the library. Very interesting but really dense - needs a lot of time to read. If I see another copy I would like to finish it someday.

The Algebraist by Iain M Banks. Initially this seems to have all of the things that I don't like about Banks (detailed descriptions of atrocities, in particular). However, once the story gets going it is exciting and fun. One of the things he seems to do best is alien societies, and the Dwellers who are the main focus in this one are just great. They're like the eccentric grand-uncles of the galaxy and quite hilarious. Probably one of his best (not quite as good as Excession or The Player of Games, though).

Thud! by Terry Pratchett. Very funny, very good. Pratchett at his best, aided by the fact he is writing about Vimes, dwarves and trolls.

Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman. A fun story about how difficult it is to be Anansi's son in the modern world.

The Pale Horseman by Bernard Cornwell. Second in the series about Alfred the Great. Excellent - I felt like the first book was just setting things up really and the second takes off. Uhtred, the narrator, is also interesting in that he absolutely hates Alfred. This leads to some good stuff in this book and I look forward to the rest of this series.

01 October 2005

September's Reading

Another month, another bunch of reading. This month: 8 books, This year: 120. Make Tea Not War read this other stuff.

The Ancestor's Tale by Richard Dawkins. A nice idea for a book, executed very well indeed. Dawkins traces the entire history of life framed as a pilgrimmage back to the beginning. Each chapter relates the story of a common ancestor of ours and whichever group is next. A lot of interesting biology essays and the most current analysis of which bits of life are most closely related to which other bits made this an extremely enjoyable read for me. Lots and lots of information in this book - probably requires a second reading.

How To Be Idle by Tom Hodgkinson. A fun little book. Mainly made me jealous of the guy for managing to have already arranged his life to be really quite enjoyable while I'm still on the early stages of my own plans that way. Bah, humbug.

The Big Over Easy by Jasper Fforde. Not as good as the Thursday Next books, but still good. Jokes are mainly about nursery rhymes and detective stories.

Under The Eagle by Simon Scarrow. I finish one series of historical novels just in time to be introduced to another. This one follows two soldiers in the Second Legion at the time of Claudius' invasion of Britain. Reminiscent of Bernard Cornwell (in fact the book has "I don't need this kind of competition" as a publicity quote from him), but I found them an easier read. Scarrow doesn't seem to dwell quite so much on all the horrors of war and there's a few more characters with warmth and humour to them. The characters are a lot of fun, too. The centurion Macro is a hard-bitten soldiers' soldier. His optio (second) is Cato, previously a scholarly slave in Claudius palace. He is posted to the second legion as an officer by imperial decree in honour of his father's work for Claudius, something that pleases neither Cato nor the soldiers he is in command of. The interactions between these two are a lot of fun.

The Cross of St. George, Sword of Honour, Second To None and Relentless Pursuit by Alexander Kent. Well, that's finished off that series (kind of). Stayed good until the end, although it did become a bit more formulaic again in the later parts. Overall, very good.

Spoilery bit follows:
Note that Richard Bolitho actually dies in the novel Sword of Honour and the following books are centered on his nephew Adam (a long time character in the books in his own right). There is actually another two novels I have yet to read - one following on there and another set early in Richard's career. However, I am deeming the series finished and not seeking those two out in particular.

27 September 2005

More Devil & the Deep playtesting

Last night the regular group played another session, number three of our story about a U-Boat crew (heavily borrowing off Das Boot, obviously).

Play went well. Scenes played out smoothly and quickly and everyone had a good time.

So the rules are now done. I have three little changes to make, and then I'll be writing up the full playtest draft of the game.

22 September 2005

Serenity: Viewed

Hooray, I got to go to a preview of Serenity on Monday.

It is very good.

It suffers a bit compared to the series in that the characters don't have the same depth (probably not aided by the need to introduce them all for people who haven't seen the series).

It is different from the series in that it is a lot more grim. I know that the series wasn't as dark as Whedon originally intended, but the film's Mal (for example) is a lot more callous than he was before. Almost scary. The plot also has a lot of stuff about the Reavers, which is all pretty unpleasant.

The film deals with a big chunk of River's story, and closes it off pretty well. There's more there, but I wouldn't be surprised if any sequels deal with other characters primarily.

If you liked the series, see this. If you like SF/action movies, see it as well.

Oh yeah, there's an absolutely great space battle. Fast, chaotic and awesome. Better than anything else I've seen recently (i.e. Star Wars episode 3).

07 September 2005

The Devil & The Deep: Thoughts On Playtests

I've run a few playtests using the current version of the rules, and with three different groups.

It feels like the rules are now pretty much right, with just minor tweaking required to get it exactly right (e.g. the exact values of risking specific things in a crisis are still being revised after each game).

Most importantly, each game has been fun. Everyone seems to have enjoyed themselves, although the explicit scene framing required seems to cause some stumbles. Last night's WARGS game suffered from this, with almost all the scenes being set by me, but as three of the four players decided to play at the last moment without ever seeing the game before, that's perhaps unsurprising.

Things that are working really well are:
- The sense of tension as people select what they are risking in each crisis. This is particularly emphasized if a roll fails and it needs to be saved, as each subsequent attempt has more and more staked on it.
- The rest of the crew develop really well. Players seem to quickly give certain crew members enough personality that they come to life when played for a single scene. This has the effect that people like to play these people instead of their main character, which was the idea.

Things that aren't working so well:
- Explicit starting and ending of scenes is important, but most roleplayers are used to letting them organically draw to a close.
- The order things are declared in a crisis is crucial and I keep messing up... the GM is supposed to declare the threat level first (i.e. is it harder than usual?). I keep forgetting this and going on to picking what's at risk. This is bad because players are supposed to select risks based partly on their knowledge of what their chance of success is. In short, they need to be able to know that the GM won't slam a huge penalty on them just after they risk their character's life and the ship sinking (for example).
- Maybe the free stuff you get at the end of a social scene should be more generous... and I think I just worked out how.

Overall, a lot of the problems come from the game's definite scene-based structure. It's not something that games generally do. In particular, it's rare for the purpose of the scene to be stated up front. In The Devil & The Deep, players should be saying (for example) "I want a social scene in which my character is pondering the deaths of his comrades in the battle earlier that day. He's in the wardroom so your guy might be there. I'd like someone to play the wardroom servant and someone else to be the marine officer." This is probably something that will develop fairly quickly as people get their heads around the rules, as there are some definite rewards in game for setting up your own social and crisis scenes.

Work has begun on the full playtest draft. Optimistically I dream it will be done in a couple of weeks but four to six is more likely. Too bad.

06 September 2005

Playtest notice: The Devil & The Deep (locals only)

For any readers in Wellington, I'll be running a game of The Devil & The Deep at the WARGS club meeting tonight. Hopefully I'll see some of you there.

15 August 2005

August's Reading

Here's this month's batch. Here is what Make Tea Not War read (no overlap this time).

Monthly score: 10, Year so far: 112.

Beyond the Reef
, The Darkening Sea and For My Country's Freedom by Alexander Kent. Still going strong on the Bolitho novels, and the end is now in sight (although he just wrote a new one, apparently). Still good.

A Sheltered Life by Paul Chambers. A light but interesting history of giant tortoises. Not a good story for the tortoises but many of the people involved with them on the way were fascinating.

Sin City: The Hard Goodbye by Frank Miller. Well written but totally grim comic. I can see why people like it, but personally I'll stick to things where I might have some sympathy for some of the characters. If you want to see bad things happen to bad people, you can't go wrong with this.

Point Blank by Ed Brubaker and Colin Wilson. Lead in to the Sleeper comics. Great stuff, although not quite as good as Sleeper. Nicely reminiscent of the Lee Marvin trippy action film.

Proof of Concept by Larry Young. A selection of trials for possible graphic novels by the author of Astronauts In Trouble. Interesting. Several of them look like they'd be as good as the astronauts stories, too.

Losers: Trifecta by Andy Diggle. Part three of the story carries on the main plot and also reveals a lot of the team's history. Good stuff, can't wait for part four.

To Rule The Waves by Arthur Herman. A history of how the British Royal Navy shaped the course of world events. Interesting, but has two flaws. Firstly, I think he gets into too much detail about individual events. Secondly, I think there's a lot of overstating the influence of the Royal Navy on world events (presumably because he's looking for that in particular). Neither flaw should prevent you from reading it, it's still a fine history.

Black Jade by David Zindell. Finally the third of the Ea stories is published, and it is good. Initially I did not like Zindell's fantasy as much as the SF Neverness books, but the characters have grown on me a lot. And it's basically about the same issues. The only problem with this is that it takes him so long to write each volume, I expect it will be two or three years before I find out what happens next.

The Devil & The Deep: Update

I was pleased that the ConFusion playtest went really well. Everyone seemed to enjoy themselves and the game played out as intended. Lots of scheming, daredevil plans and - as in the playtest - the game ended with the British and French ships engaging each other and finally the British winning after a climactic swordfight between the captains. Huzzah!

There were a few bumps to do with deferring narration. One was that a character had set up a watch for nefarious Frenchmen, and we went into Crisis mode to resolve what happened - I said that some were coming and we'd roll to see what happened. Of course, at this stage where they are coming from and even what they have planned is undefined. This only gets firmly established after the Crisis is resolved - at this stage it's just "A boat full of Frenchmen is threatening your ship." I guess I'll need to make that all very explicit - the Crisis when originally presented is just a more or less defined danger. When the player and gamemaster decide what is at risk, it gets defined some more. But only when the roll (and any follow on rolls, possibly) are done do we finally have an authoritative version of what happened.

Also, it's difficult to play troupe-style games in a convention. I should have planned for this and had a bunch of other crew members on small cards or something - just a name and description probably would have been enough. On the other hand, one player seemed to prefer the sailor who disliked another character's officer more than his main guy.

I'm planning to run another playtest with the regular group starting tonight. Rather than doing a full revision of the rules, I'm running off a new version of the two (now four) page summary that I made for convention players. This is much easier to handle and I think I'll stick with that until everything is settled.

09 August 2005

Research on MMORPGs

Interesting stuff on demographics and preferences in MMORPGs (mainly World of Warcraft) at the Daedalus Project.

(Also a survey that you can fill in to add to their dataset).

03 August 2005

Good interview with Joss Whedon

Covers most stuff he has done or is doing... here. Serenity gets a fair chunk of it.

02 August 2005

Game Design Update

Oh well, I didn't win (or even place) in the Game Chef competition. Too bad. Announcement is here. I am currently planning to revise and publish The Gentlemen's Entomology Club after I have The Devil & The Deep sorted out.

Speaking of which, I ran a playtest of my latest revisions last night with the regular guys. Revisions were good, the game ran much more smoothly and the story ran true to genre... right down to a climactic naval engagement that our heroes won by the skin of their teeth. I'm going to be running the same scenario at ConFusion on Saturday, if any other Wellingtonians want to try it out. (I tried to link but the ConFusion website is down - here's a summary).

31 July 2005

July's Reading

Very few again. Not just because of World of Warcraft, either (although I am still playing and enjoying it). 7 this month for 102 over the year. Read Make Tea Not War's month of reading here.

Honour This Day
and The Only Victor by Alexander Kent. Further changes in the series as it becomes much more about the way the many years of war have affected and damaged the characters. Interesting.

One King, One Soldier by Alexander C Irvine. Good historical/supernatural/conspiracy tale. Weaves some rather pedestrian starting points (e.g. holy grail, etc) into a pleasing novel. Some unusual choices for historical character involvement, too.

Accelerando by Charles Stross. Nine short snapshots in a history of a Singularity. Lots of fun, some thought provoking bits but mainly just nifty ideas.

Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince by J K Rowling. Enjoyed this. As expected, a fun story.

Olympos by Dan Simmons. Certainly concludes the story. Basically good with a lot of jarring bits. Some important things do not get explained and some things get resolved in annoying ways. Hard call. Read it if you want to find out what happens after Ilium, I guess.

The Life of Mammals by David Attenborough. Interesting coffee-book, lots of good animal factoids and nice photos.

Serenity Trailer #3


Second US trailer and third overall, this one includes some extra funny lines from Jayne. Yay!

23 July 2005

New Series Of Battlestar Galactica Has Started!

Just in case anyone hadn't been aware. The first one was really good, took all the cliffhanger bits of the end of series one and made everything worse. They really make a scary show as well as a good piece of science fiction.

01 July 2005

June's Reading

This is going to look pretty damn short, due mainly to World of Warcraft. As usual, you can see Make Tea Not War's list here. Total this month is a feeble seven, bringing the year's score to 95.

A Tradition of Victory, Success To The Brave and Colours Aloft by Alexander Kent. I'm still enjoying the Bolitho novels, but the ones I'm reading at the moment (mainly mid to late 1970s) seem rather more formulaic. Even so, the characters (Bolitho especially but some of his companions as well) are developing in interesting ways as the saga continues.

The Charnel Prince by Gregory Keyes. Second in his current fantasy series. Doesn't seem as original as the first one... his characters here seem to have dropped back into being fantasy novel standards.

More Than Human by Ramez Naam. A good, up to date overview of where transhuman technologies are right now and where they might go. Loads of interesting stuff in here, nothing in a great deal of detail however.

Sharpe's Escape by Bernard Cornwell. A very good novel. As the latest in the series, it really shows how Sharpe has mellowed over time. Cornwell is filling in gaps in Sharpe's history but the man's character is much more honourable now than when the original books were written. I'm pretty sure the Sharpe of the books that go chronologically before and after this one was a much nastier piece of work. This version is scarcely a brutal murderer at all! Still, overall I prefer to read about this Sharpe. His mind-space is an easier place to share.

24 June 2005

World of Warcraft - What It's Like

As this game has led to a lack of posts recently, I figured I should at least write up how it plays.

To start with, it's fun and addictive. The game looks great - not due to high technical specs, but just because the design is really good. Stuff just looks cool.

It has a few of the things that had kept me away from MMORPGs. These include (1) morons, (2) boring bits (usually involving repeated killing some type of creature for a quest) and (3) some annoying bugs. However, the overall experience is good. I'm helped there by knowing a large group of people in-game (for one character) and playing with Make Tea Not War for the other (cooperative play with someone in the same room is very good and not often found in PC games). The times I have randomly picked up extra people to do this or that quest, they've been good for the most part. You always see some morons spamming your chat window in cities but I guess they still are a minority.

The game is also so huge that I can see that playing at least four different characters through (with different species and class) will be required to see anything close to all of the game.

So, it is good. Worth the price, just. I suspect I'll certainly get 4-6 months play from it, which will make the total cost about that of two games. That's reasonable - I'd normally probably buy three over a half year.

09 June 2005

Carnivale - Review After Finishing It

I watched the final of series two last night. Really good show. Pity they cancelled it, the ending (i.e. setup for series three) looked really interesting.

That said, some really nasty stuff happens and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone easily disturbed by, for example, sexual violence or dismemberment. However, if you're prepared to handle some violent and freaky stuff, it's well worth it.

The way the magic is portrayed is really neat, reminiscent of Tim Powers novels to me. It feels like it has a logic to it, but it's not a very nice logic in most cases. The acting is universally good and the scriptwriting too. The characters are interesting and are forced to deal with situations that have no good way out, which makes some powerful scenes.

The direction tends to include a lot of dark scenes where you can't see what's going on, but aside from that there's little to complain about.

Why does it seem like every TV show this good gets cancelled?

07 June 2005

Primetime Adventures - Playtest Impressions

Regular group played a game of Primetime Adventures last night, so I thought I'd share my impressions. This will be pretty brief, I think, mainly hitting the high and low points.

Show and character generation went really well, it seem to be just the right level of detail (not much, in this case). The show was called A Fistful Of Brains and dealt with four bounty hunters who hunted down rogue zombies (apparently some zombies managed to live without mindlessly attacking people). The characters were a truly bizarre bunch - a hillbilly trucker, a voodoo magician/ex-government agent, a beautician/assassin and a zombie rights advocate (yes, he was one of the undead).

The scenes played out pretty well but I think we generally were only thinking of how they started, rather than where we wanted them to go. It was also mainly action-based rather than focusing hugely on character issues (although all their issues were addressed).

One big turn off was the tie-breaking element of dice rolls - ties aren't that uncommon, and the rule is for each side to throw an extra die to add to their pool. Now, odds are successes, so a lot of the time this gets repeated. This is not fun. It also changes the odds - you can have a better chance than the opposition at first but if you tie on that roll, it becomes even whether you win or lose. We decided that a house rule would be that higher rolls win ties, and only add more dice if that is a tie too.

Fanmail was under-used, partly due to people forgetting about it but mainly just carrying the story along too fast. When it happened it worked as intended and added to the game.

Overall, a very good game with maybe a little flaw or two.

Oh, and the pilot? The evil zombie gang pushing the zombie drug 'Z' was taken down, but test audiences were unimpressed. Looks like we'll pull in the next pilot for something new next session...

05 June 2005

Welcome to the future!

CNN article about early cornucopia machine development: The machine that can copy anything. Sounds like it isn't too far off production, either.

I wonder how long it will take from the first production model until everyone (yes, everyone) has one? I'm reminded of the spread of potatos and chillis when they first came to Europe - they spread basically everywhere in a few decades, and transport then wasn't as fast.

Also, not too many steps between that and the ones that Stross has in Singularity Sky, I hope.

03 June 2005

New Addiction

After much evangelism from work buddies, I finally caved and bought World of Warcraft this week. I'd previously avoided such games due to two main factors:
1. I don't like the idea of paying a monthly fee for a game I already bought.
2. It's going to be full of intarweb morons.

Now, the main thing that changed my mind was that so many people I know are already playing it, so I can meet up with them in game and that's much better than trusting to random people. But I've also been pretty bored with computer games recently and thought I'd try what is pretty much the only big game type I haven't played before.

So, how is it? Gameplay is much as expected. Addictive, but still quests aren't super varied. That said, I've seen a few really cool variations on the basic 'collect this' or 'take that to him' quest. And there's hints of a big overarching story or two going on. Overall, a very good game that plays pretty much exactly as you expect.

Also, seems low on morons. That might just be because I play in the middle of the night, USA time of course.

Oh yeah, anyone wants to say hi in game, I'm playing a troll called Xugarr on the Khadgar server.

30 May 2005

May's Reading

A Brief History Of The Human Race by Michael Cook. Similar to Guns, Germs and Steel in some ways, in that it's a general overview of all human history and why things turned out as they did. However, Cook's take is much more readable. It's because of his approach and program, I think. His program is just to explain what we know about what has happened (i.e. not push his theory of why it happened that way). He also has a nice structure - each chapter covers a main topic and then has two interesting case studies in that area. He picks the case studies well, they're all interesting and most of them are really fascinating (like the bizarrely complex marriage rules in one Australian culture). It is not, however, very deep. Still, it such a nice coverage of the topic that I think pretty much every human ought to read it.

Form Line Of Battle, Enemy In Sight, Signal - Close Action and The Inshore Squadron by Alexander Kent. More Bolitho action. Still good. Although they are pretty formulaic, there's enough variation to keep them interesting. Bolitho is also developing in an interesting way as time passes.

The Last Guardian of Everness by John C Wright. A damn good fantasy novel. Hits a lot of the same places (indeed, some of the same characters) as Gaiman's work and has a nice dose of Lovecraftian dreaming in it too. I think Wright does a better job of making the world fit together than either of those two, however. And there are evil selkie pirates! I'll need to buy this one, possibly the moment that the next one comes available.

How To Be A Bad Birdwatcher by Simon Barnes. A nice book about appreciating birds. Barnes provides anecdotes and explains aspects of doing this well but really it ends up being about appreciating the world and gives him a chance to explain his views on the meaning of life and so on. Very good, at least for someone like me who is already a bit of a bad birdwatcher.

Iron Sunrise by Charles Stross. Sequel to Singularity Sky and overall a better book. The two main characters return to deal with a difficult situation caused by somebody blowing up a star. Read this.

Citizen Cyborg by John Hughes. Too much thought to sum up here. I need to read this again and do a real review then. Summary: Hughes' conception of democratic transhumanism is how the future should be. To be honest, it ought to be the present.

The Human Front by Ken McLeod. A really fun little take on UFO conspiracy theories, from the point of view of a Glasgow communist (of course).

The Quiet Invasion by Sarah Zettel. Slow starting but ultimately quite satisfying first-contact science fiction. Interesting setup, with aliens settling Venus... to the surprise of the human scientists living there.

Lurulu by Jack Vance. Sequel to Ports Of Call, set is his space opera (kind of) universe along with the Araminta Station series and a few others that I can't recall. Simply, it is another Vance novel, i.e. hilarious and brilliant.

I also read a couple of Hellblazer comics, Son of Man (Garth Ennis) and High Water (Brain Azzarello). Both are extremely brutal, misanthropic and nasty. The Ennis one is a more satisfying story. The Azzarello story left me feeling kind of dirty to have just read the thing, and didn't have anything in there to make it worth exposing yourself to that.

Make Tea Not War's reading this month.
Month's tally: 14, Total this year: 88.

29 May 2005

I Am Now, Officially, A Game Designer

As you can see by checking out: The Gentlemen's Entomology Club, Michael Sands - Game Chef - 2005. I'd really appreciate comments from anyone who downloads and reads it, or - god forbid! - plays it.

Okay, it's only kind of semi-published. But it is a complete game, available to the public.

I'm going to do a bit of a post-mortem on the process. I was kind of thinking of waiting until the contest was judged but that may be a while. Looks like there will be a lot of entries.

So, how was it? Overall, it was a hell of lot of fun. I'd decided to enter to prove to myself that I could do it more than anything else, and had some ideas of trying to work some transhumanist themes into it*. Then I saw the ingredient list. Oh dear. Not easy to build a game themed in a historical period on stuff that hasn't happened yet. And the elements... In any case, I brainstormed for the day trying to think of any way to make all that into something fun to play. It kind of came together bit by bit, so I had enough of a concept to throw together a draft for my gaming group on Monday.

Now, that draft was pretty sparse. The main thing was to get the cards made. I put a structure of play section in there - this was really where I designed the game. So I had a schema saying "you do this, then do that. Now if this happens do such and such otherwise this other thing". Then I wrote up some text to go around that, and explain bits that didn't make much sense. Then back and forth between the structure and main text until it was done. Now I notice that I've written a humorous game of competitive storytelling. Not anything I had intended, not by a long shot. Too bad.

So, I inform the gaming guys that I'll be dropping this barely formed bizarre game on them. And someone was ill, so I shanghaied a workmate to come along too. One of the game chef ingredients is wine, and one of the ways that's integrated is that the players are advised to drink it while playing. This worked well. I quickly explained the rules (not too hard given how few there were) and off we went. It was really good. The game just worked almost exactly as I envisioned it. This has not happened for my two (or maybe three) other game designs over the past year or two. We all had fun, plenty of laughs were had. We stopped after two rounds - there was time for another but playing it was vetoed.

Interestingly, I got the impression that the people who enjoyed it the least were the hard-core roleplaying gamers in the group. The two guys who told me they would like to play it again were the ones least into the hobby.

Anyhow,the rest of the week was dedicated to spending all non-working, non-parenting moments to revising it into a publicly acceptable shape. This took between one and four hours per day. I've been watching Carnivale, and found that rewarding a chunk of work with the next episode was effective. Especially for the real cliffhanger episodes. This all went fairly smoothly and steadily until yesterday I decided that it was ready. This was a fairly careful choice. I don't think it would be fair to charge money for what's there now, it's too raw. However, for the purposes of the contest, it was as good as it's likely to get. I could easily have spent the rest of the weekend to get a trivial level of polish added, but this just wasn't worth it. I do intend to revise it and publish a new edition for money. I want to wait before I do that, though. Get some feedback from people who read or play it, that sort of thing. And not think about it myself for a month or two.

That's pretty much it. Now I'm just cruising on the feeling of accomplishment. There's plenty going around here at the moment, as Make Tea Not War just finished the draft of her PhD. Woo! Yay us!

* I've been thinking about this a lot recently, and come to the conclusion that it isn't being sufficiently addressed in roleplaying games. David Pulver's Transhuman Space is as close as we've got. And, because it's GURPS, it doesn't really make you think about transhumanist issues. It just makes you think about "how many points can I get this cool upgrade for". To be fair, that's hyperbole - it isn't that bad. But the transhuman elements of the setting tend to end up just as colour. I want a game where you explore all that stuff in depth - immortality, computer uploads, synthetic minds, all that kind of thing.

23 May 2005

Game Chef/The Gentlemen's Entomology Club

Well, I have a working draft of my game - The Gentlemen's Entomology Club. I know it works because I just played it and we all had fun.

More detailed discussion may be found in the official Game Chef forums.

10 May 2005


Game chef is the Iron Chef-inspired week long game design contest. It seems like it was pretty cool last year so I figured that I'd give it a go. At least if the ingredients spark off a cool idea or three.

Actual Play Impressions of The Shadow of Yesterday

The regular group is taking a break from The Devil & The Deep while I rewrite it. So we played a game of The Shadow of Yesterday to tide us over. I'm planning maybe 3 sessions before hitting the playtest again with a rather different looking version of my rules.

Anyhow, I decided to run Rat Moon Rising, the adventure that is available at the game's main website. Four of the guys were there and they proceeded to make up a bunch of oddballs who each picked a different faction in the scenario. We had one soldier, an Zaru Uz magician. Two goblins, one working for each of the opposed Maldorite lords. And finally, one ratkin who allied himself with the more dangerous ratkin faction.

The goblins were both looking for the lost soldiers and we initially played their meeting. They became cautious allies while the ratkin killed off the one goblin's lackeys who were ready to ambush the other guy.

Then we cut to the soldier who was given the job of dealing with the ratkin captors in an effort to get them out. He was introduced to the main issues in the ratkin horde.

Back to the goblins, they engaged in a little masochistic sex to break up the walk and the ratkin took advantage of them bloodying each other to attack. He did some damage and then fled.

In the city we had another scene with the soldier and his comrades and their efforts to work out what the hell to do. This was made more urgent with the news that someone had overheard ratkin talking about slaughtering them all that night.

Our ratkin had a confab with Squall and some plans were made for the human soldiers.

The goblins had reached the city by this point and they ambushed and killed a litter of young ratkin, although one got away. He ran into our human soldier, who was taking some fresh air. The soldier helped the crtter get away and tried to talk to the goblins. They decided to go hide and work out what to do.

Our ratkin psychopath ambushed them in their conference and in a brutal fight slaughtered them both. Ouch!

Then Squall's lackeys (including our guy) decided to sneak into where the humans were being help and kill them all. This didn't go so well - the Zaru hit him with some magic and this gave the humans time to run for it. They headed for the hills and Gerard managed to get them where he wanted them.

The last thing was the leadership of the ratkin... Squall ended up challenging Night-paws and taking over the horde. There goes the neighbourhood.

That's everything that occured. The rules played well - as you might expect, we had a few minor misunderstandings, but none fatal. Overall it was smooth and brutal, which I think is the intention. The PVP possibilities of the scenario were really played up, basically due to the ratkin guy turning the character into a combat monster relative to the others (they were more well-rounded) and also having good dice luck, while the goblins rolled atrociously. Too bad. Everyone had fun, which is the main thing. Next time I think I'll set it up to have less deadly conflicts at the start.

Anyway, it seemed to play as good as it looked like it should. Great stuff.

01 May 2005

This interview with Richard Dawkins is really good

Yeah, nothing to do with gaming or any other of my usual topics.

Salon: The atheist

April's Reading

The Prodigal Sun by Sean Williams and Shane Dix. Not as good as Williams' solo fantasy. Rather average space opera. Have I mentioned that I absolutely hate science fiction with psychic powers in it? I mean, just admit you want to write fantasy and do it. Bah! I had to give up on this one, it just wasn't going anywhere I wanted to be.

The Billy Ruffian by David Cordingly. A biography of HMS Bellerophon with associated history of the Napoleonic Wars. Very good. Cordingly does a phenomenal job of making what could have been a very dry, tedious listing of details of the ship's travels and engagements into an exciting story. It helps that the Bellerophon was in key positions in the Glorious First of June, the Battle of the Nile and the Battle of Trafalgar, of course.

Sloop of War, To Glory We Steer, Command A King's Ship, Passage To Mutiny and With All Despatch by Alexander Kent. These next few novels are much better than the first ones. Bolitho was clearly just waiting for a command (Sloop of War details his first) to bloom into a much more interesting character. Both the story and the characterization here are great. Highly recommended.

Isaac the Pirate 2 by Christophe Blain. Second volume of a strange comic about a Jewish artist in probably 18th century Paris who ends up in a pirate crew. The first one was better, this has less humour and more gruesome death.

Invincible (all written so far) by Robert Kirkman and Cory Walker. Hilarious teen superhero parody comic. Read it. Takes a much more serious turn in #3 but it's still good.

The Walking Dead (all written so far) by Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore. Very good zombie comic. Unlike Invincible, there aren't any funny bits at all. Scary and tense, and things don't turn out well. A good story, though

100 Bullets (every damn one that's been written so far) by Brian Azzarello. Reading them in order made much more sense than #5 by itself. Brutal, nasty people in a really pretty cool conspiracy. I look forward to finding out what's really going on but that's still 40 issues away, apparently.

Sleeper (every damn one of these too) by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. Extremely grim comic about a deep-cover agent infiltrating a super-villain organization. Very good but harsh. Things just don't go well for the poor guy, and so far it shows no sign of getting cheerier.

Gotham Central (volume 1) by Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka. Nice comic about what it might be like to be a cop in Gotham City. Some funny moments but some grim ones too.

Queen & Country (volumes 1 & 2) by Greg Rucka. Good spy comics.

Stamping Butterflies by John Courtney Grimwood. Couldn't get into this one. Author trying far to hard to be complex (and thus difficult). Seemed to have some cool ideas buried there but not good enough to actually find them.

A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett. Sequel the The Wee Free Men and pretty much carries on just like the first one. Funny, good.

Old Man's War by John Scalzi. Extremely good and often hilarious space opera/war novel. Kind of like Starship Troopers or The Forever War in style. The basic idea is that old people can join the Colonial defense Force and get rejuvenated. We follow one old guy through the process. A good story and worth it just for the scene where he gets introduced to his "BrainPal" computer.

Lost Worlds by Michael Bywater. Strange miscellany of things that have been lost, with commentary. Evenly split between interesting odd stuff, his personal nostalgia and thoughts about mortality. Interesting.

Secret Identity by Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immonen. Really, really good comic about what it's like to be called "Clark Kent".

Plastic Man: On The Lam by Kyle Baker. Very odd, quite fun. Like a Ren & Stimpy superhero comic or something.

A Scattering Of Jades by Alexander C Irvine. Recommended by Kenneth Hite as not quite as good as Tim Powers but definitely good enough while waiting for Powers' next novel. That's a pretty good description. Similar style and use of secret magic history, but not quite as compelling as a Powers novel. Still very good, of course. It's set in the early 19th century and deals with Aztec gods coming back to life with cameos from Edgar Allan Poe, P T Barnum and Aaron Burr.

Singularity Sky by Charles Stross. I've been wanting to read this for a while and finally found it for sale locally. Very cool hard SF dealing with the effects of a singularity inflicted upon a world - suddenly everyone can have anything they want from the super-high-tech visitors. A lot of fun.

Book total this month: 30 or so (I kind of lost track of all the graphic novels there) and year so far: 74. The other half's reading this month is here.

23 April 2005

Carnivale - First Episode Review

Well, they just began showing this in New Zealand at 11.30pm on Friday nights. Obviously two years late and an extremely inconvenient hour, as it was great.

It's hard to sum up - basically, a guy on the run gets taken in by carnies crossing the dustbowl. However, the show begins with the idea that this was the last few years that magic existed in the world, and we soon see that at least some of the carnies can do magic.

All the acting was good, the characters look like their stories will be interesting and there were some stunning visions and magical effects. Not stunning because they had sparkly special effects, but because they captured something meaningful. Hard to explain, especially as the main example I'd mention is rather a big spoiler. Oh well.

If you're one of my local readers, make sure you are watching this program.

13 April 2005

Read-through Review of Prime Time Adventures

This one is going to be short. Partly because Prime Time Adventures is a short game and partly because it's another that's hard to judge without actually playing it.

It's about roleplaying TV shows along the lines of Buffy, Angel, Alias, Farscape (those are all in there as inspirations). Adventure shows that are focused on characters.

The rules are pretty simple and they look fully capable of doing the job.

I particularly like the spotlight episode rule - each season, your protagonists gets one spotlight episode - all about them and their issues. Other episodes you'll be either normally involved or in a more minor role. Interestingly, you decide which is going to be which at the start of the season. This also determines how many dice you get to roll during each episode.

Another thing that seems to often be talked about is fan mail. This didn't seem so big to me from reading it, but it may matter more in play. The Producer (GM) may add dice against a protagonist from their budget (based on episode importance). However, this number of tokens then go into a pool. Any player may, once per scene, take a token and give it to another player in recognition of cool stuff they are doing. This is fan mail. Players may spend fan mail to get bonus dice. Seems pretty cool.

It looks good, I think it will be fun to play. I suspect the hardest parts will be thinking up good issues for the protagonists - that is, what complicates their lives all the time - and keeping the episode running in a nice TV-like structure. Scenes, acts, buildup all need to work right.

Overall? Well worth a look. It's going on the "to be played" list.

09 April 2005

Folding@Home Distributed Computing

Off topic post, I'm afraid. Just an ad, really, for Folding@Home Distributed Computing.

I've seen the SETI@Home project but I didn't really think that the research was important enough to bother with it all. However, the Folding@Home project is getting work done on protein folding which is a rather more compelling area to help out with.

So, think about letting them use your idle CPU cycles for this. You might end up helping to cure cancer or something (that's not a wild claim, by the way).

07 April 2005

Card Game Review: Gloom

A new game in the mail today, huzzah! This one was Gloom, a card game of freakish families having miserable lives.

Sat down and played three games to see what it was like, and was pleased to find that it is fun for just two players. Rare in card games.

Anyway, you play event cards on the characters, aiming to make yours miserable and (if possible) everyone else's happy. You can also play untimely deaths, when you think someone ought to go (when really miserable for yours, or not very miserable for others). When one family is totally dead, scoring occurs but counting up miserableness of all dead characters. Most miserable family wins (something about rewards in the next life, I think).

The cards are made of transparent plastic and have a gimmicky mechanic of playing the new ones on top of the character, so they develop little piles. Only the scores you can see count, so you can play a card on top to supersede what's already there. It works well. The cards suffer a bit from having the text very small and in hard to read colours and fonts, though.

Anyway, it's fun. The characters are twisted, the events bizarre. I think that you'd want to start making up stories for what happens to get the most out of it, and we found ourselves doing this a little bit. It's also really funny that you end up getting mad at your opponent when they, for instance, make one of your people get happy married (and vice versa).

It's not a must-buy, but it's diverting and will certainly come off my shelf a bit more often than some of the games that are currently gathering dust there.

06 April 2005

Dogs in the Vineyard Playtest Impressions

Well, I got to play it last night at the local games club. I played with one person I know fairly well, one I am acquainted with and one who I hadn't met before. The fact that we all had a damn good time despite this reflects pretty well on the game, I think.

So we sat down, I give the three of them a brief introduction to what the game's about and the structure of the Faith and go into character generation. That goes okay - not as well as it would have for people who knew each other better, I suspect. We get some good characters:
  • Brother Cutter, orphaned by Mountain People. An angry, sinner-smiting young man.
  • Brother Ezekiel, a student of theology and doctrine.
  • Brother Tom, a Mountain Person convert with a big chip on his shoulder about it.
Brothers Cutter and Tom, needless to say, weren't exactly happy about working together. The conflicts to round off character generation went okay except for me falling over a bit when conducting arguments about the nature of the Faith (this came up in both Ezekiel and Tom's ones - I managed okay for one).

So they ride in to Eagle Falls Branch. They take a look around a little outside the town and a boy comes up to greet them. They pretty much grill him on whether he has been learning the Book of Life and so forth. A pretty hard-ass start, I thought. The kid was just being friendly. Anyhow, he invites them into his place for something to eat and drink. His ma sets the Dogs up and then asks them to deal with her daughter Tryphena, who wanted to marry the wrong man. Both families and the Steward agreed the marriage wasn't ordained and told them to forget it, but it seems they were still seeing each other. The Dogs say they'll sort it out but don't talk to the girl now (in fact, they never did). They head into town instead.

They go to see the Steward, Jeduthan, except for Brother Cutter - he decides to check out the guy who's the other side of this love affair. Ezekiel and Tom sit down to talk to the Steward, who's a convert from back East. They immediately decide he's a bad guy because of all his decadent Eastern furnishings. He lets them know that there's a problem with a few of the congregation refusing to come to meetings on the Sabbath - because they dislike him for his background.

Meanwhile, Cutter scares the willies out of Archibald, who repents and promises to no longer question his ma, pa or the Steward.

Then the Dogs have a bit of a meeting in the town square and tell the folk that they're here and they're gonna sort out everything that's wrong. They ask people to come and let them know what's wrong, and spend the afternoon fielding more and more details about Micajah and the others he's convinced to avoid Jeduthan's preaching. Apparently Micajah was expected to be the Steward after the last one died but Jeduthan got appointed instead. There's also a few stories about bad things happening when Jeduthan's blessings ought to have protected the town.

The Dogs decide to sort out Micajah. They head to his house, where Cutter and Ezekiel start trying to get him to admit that he's a sinner. He comes right back with the line that he always ought to have been the Steward and that the Eastener ain't a true Faithful. Eventually Tom gets sick of this and pulls a gun on the guy. We go into a bigass conflict, starting with fighting and then escalating. We had shooting, tomahawks, demonic powers, exorcism and probably some other stuff before it all ended with Micajah shot down on his porch and Brother Tom bleeding to death from a couple of bullets in his gut.

Cutter and Ezekiel work feverishly to save Tom's life, and manage to do it by the skin of their teeth.

Then the three of them go through the town and get every one of the people influenced by Micajah's false teachings to go back to the Faith. Strangely enough, they all complied with this. Also, Cutter went of alone and married Archibald and Tryphena. I think he just felt sorry for them. They told Jeduthan off for letting things get as bad as they did, pretty much implying he was basically at fault for it all.

Reflection at the end had Cutter and Tom warming to each other significantly, which was nice. I don't think they pondered their judgments too much, oh well.

So that's what happened, now the analysis.

The game's astonishingly good at making the Dogs judge people. It really is hard to just go dump the problems on the Dogs, though. Baker says this himself. Every other damn game you're expected to hide the problem. So you are constantly thinking "Oh, let's just hint at this thing... No! Tell them the whole damn mess!" But it works. Especially with these Dogs... they made their judgments quick, and I suspect they might need to learn to double check what's going on as we play through some more towns. Either that or just hope they make a good choice first time.

The "say yes or roll dice" advice works like a charm (once I caught myself beginning a conflict out of habit when I didn't need one - I just said it all went as desired and didn't make that mistake again).

The dice mechanics are great. They work much smoother than they read and they've got a lot of style. I don't think I've seen another game where everybody "got it" so quick, either. It's fun, too - especially when the players realized things like "if I pull my gun and start shooting, I get all these extra dice to roll".

Overall, play seemed to be everything the game promised on reading. I cannot recommend this game enough. Buy it (one of the guys who played last night told me he ordered one already).

31 March 2005

March Book Report

Another month's worth of reading and more or less detailed comments. Again, you may find other opinions on some of these books at Make Tea Not War.

One of the things I'm writing these book lists for is so I can know how many books I actually read. The running total for the year so far is 44.

Anyway, here are the books:

The Well of Stars
by Robert Reed. Good space opera with lots of big stuff. It takes place (mainly) on a starship that dwarfs the Earth, that's how big. It's an interesting and exciting story. Worth reading.

Midshipman Bolitho, Midshipman Bolitho and the Avenger, Stand Into Danger and In Gallant Company by Alexander Kent. A good successor to Hornblower. Good, fun adventure novels. Bolitho's a lot more likeable than Hornblower, too. It seems to be developing well as I work my way through the first few - interestingly, Kent wrote them in arbitrary order (rather than chronologically through Bolitho's career) in order to keep them fresh and interesting. It certainly hasn't done the books any harm.

The Briar King by Greg Keyes. Superior fantasy marred only by his use of unnecessary dialect and fantasy words where they weren't required (in fact, they often detracted a little from the story - I didn't even realize his elves were actually elves rather than a human culture for ages). Still, very good characters and a really good story. It's one of those really long fantasy novels that I burnt through in a day or so as it was so good. Another one that I now have to wait for the next volume...

Resolution by John Meaney. Final book in a trilogy (and my comments here apply to both Paradox and Context as well). Very good, exciting space opera (kind of) story. Interesting main character. A parallel story in the past that I found mainly detracted from the main one. A lot of stuff that had to do with made up physics stuff and alternate worlds and quantum stuff. Overall? Great but flawed, I think. I didn't find the things that happened in the past really related much to the main story (of course they do, but you don't really see how until the very end).

The Stone Mage & The Sea, The Sky Warden & The Sun and The Storm Weaver & The Sand by Sean Williams. After enjoying The Crooked Letter so much I decided to read his earlier fantasy series set later in the same world. Very good fantasy in the coming of age/wizard's apprentice style.

White Rajah by Nigel Barley. Fascinating biography of Sir James Brooke. The short story is that this mid-nineteenth century chap took his inheritance, went looking for adventure and became ruler of a significant chunk of Borneo. The most amazing thing is that he seems to have done it by simple bull-headness... he sailed up and started doing stuff, and convinced everyone to do what he wanted. Crazy. The biography is very readable at first but peters out a bit later - mainly because Brooke's life is less interesting later on, I suspect.

Coyote Rising by Allen Steele. Second novel about the colonization of the planet Coyote. A really good story, exciting and with well-drawn characters. The only thing is that, well, there's a big revolution against the government of Earth which drives the story. But not really any reason for it. I mean, the revolutionaries personally dislike the governor and the colony is run pretty badly. But it just doesn't seem like enough to drive armed rebellion, you know? Still, it's a good book.

Concrete (book one) by Paul Chadwick. Really astonishingly good graphic novel. I think that it's the humanity of the main characters that makes it work. Concrete is a very convincing picture of a regular person dealing with being kidnapped and placed into an inhuman body. His body is superpowered (in effect) but cuts him off from most normal human life. I think I have to read all the others now. How could I have missed such a good comic for almost twenty years?

The Tomb by Nunzio Defilippis, Christina Weir and Christopher Mitten. Nice little modern occult comic about a house that has been built like an Egyptian tomb - complete with cinematic tomb traps and so on. Feels like it grew out of somebody's modern Call of Cthulhu game, but not in a bad way. In fact, I'm going to use that house next time I run InSpectres.

Kim by Rudyard Kipling. I picked this up to read on the grounds that it inspired a great deal of Tim Powers' Declare, one of my favorite novels. It's good, but I found Kipling's writing style often painful. Too much "...as all Asiatics do" and other dated phrases (not all of them racist). But the actual story is good, I enjoyed Kim's parallel education in becoming a spy and as an acolyte to the Tibetan Buddhist who befriends him. In terms of illuminating stuff in Declare, I didn't get a huge amount - maybe it needs to wait until I re-read that one to pick up everything.

Conan: The Frost Giant's Daughter and Other Stories by Kurt Busiek, Cary Nord and Thomas Yeates. Really good Conan comic. Busiek's Conan is a little more introspective than Howard's, I think, but not enough to be a worry. Good stories, great art. Recommended, and I'm looking forward to the second trade paperback (it looks like there's enough new issues out there that it can't be far off).

29 March 2005

First Playtest Of My Game

Well, we did a first playtest of my game last night.

Basically it all went well, people had fun and so on (although I felt like it took a little while to get going).

Lots of changes to be made to the rules, of course. I expected a fair amount of that - some of the changes are ones that I thought I'd need to make, even. A couple of things didn't work out as expected but should be easily fixable.

My big problem, which I don't have a solution for, is that I'd like to reward in-character interaction with the crew, other player characters and assorted people all over. However, I'm not sure how to do that. Maybe giving a free new/changed relationship with the character concerned for doing this interaction would be easiest, but it's not terribly exciting. Hmm... perhaps something more like, if you play a scene with another character, the next time they are involved in a crisis you are sorting out, you get a bonus from them? Any thoughts/suggestions in comments will be appreciated.

27 March 2005

Game Design Update

Well, I have written up enough of my game to run the first playtest with my regular group tomorrow. It's now past the fun ideas stage and getting into the hard work stage. Too bad, but that's the way things go.

My biggest trouble seems to be writing examples. There aren't many in the draft yet - it's basically a skeleton with the rules in there and most of the science fiction setting that the first playtest will be. But the examples... getting a balance between fun, the details you need examples of and making those bits as clear as possible. Very difficult. It increases my respect of pretty much all game writers, but anyone who makes great examples - my respect for you knows no bounds at the moment.

For anyone reading who is on the list to playtest, I'm going to revise after the first playtest session and should have a draft for other people to try in a few weeks. After that I'll revise again for a more public playtest draft.

Oh yeah, as an update on the name, my current favorite is The Devil & the Deep which I think conveys a nautical flavour, sounds kind of neat and kind of hints at bad stuff and doesn't tie it to any particular setting. Comments welcome (even if you just think it sucks).

25 March 2005

More SF TV: Crusade

Also, over the course of the last week or so, watched the DVD set of Crusade, the Babylon 5 spinoff series.

Not too much to say about it, however. It was good - the quality of writing and acting notably improved over Babylon 5. The series just didn't really grab me; the questions of faith and motivation that the writers cared about are not really of interest to me, I guess.

Worth watching, if you like Babylon 5.

More on Battlestar Galactica

I just re-watched the 2003 miniseries, on DVD this time. I liked it more second time around, although I don't think it's quite as good as the series itself. The setup in the first part has some clumsy bits - particularly with regard to Number Six.

On the other hand, I was quite surprised by how much they foreshadowed stuff that is brought out in the series. Even the way the different cylon models acted seems to match the different aspects of humanity that each seems to embody. Also, knowing that one guy is a cylon from the beginning, you can see a lot of little comments he makes in a much more sinister light.

The other thing was that the space battles looked a hell of a lot better on DVD. The special effects crew on this are just awesome. I really like the overall feel and also that they seem to have covered every little detail.

Now to watch series one through again...

21 March 2005

Roleplaying Games

Here's all my reviews and commentary on roleplaying games.

Prime Time Adventures: Review Actual Play
Dogs In The Vineyard: Review Actual Play
Run Robot Red: Review
Conspiracy of Shadows: Review
The Shadow of Yesterday: Review Actual play
Capes: Review Play
Dead Inside: Review
HeroQuest: Review Post-game feelings
Scarlet Wake: Review Play

My Book Reviews

Here are all my book reviews/commentary.

October 2005 (coming soon!)
September 2005
August 2005
July 2005
June 2005
May 2005
April 2005
March 2005
February 2005
January 2005
Even more books
Yet more books
Some more books
Some books

20 March 2005

Thoughts on HeroQuest after winding up the first chunk.

I've just played the last section of our HeroQuest game. This was motivated partly by getting a little bored of the game and mostly by the desire to begin playtesting The Ship. In any case, here's my thoughts on HeroQuest after playing fortnightly for 9 months or so.

Overall, it doesn't really live up to the promise it had on initial reading. The rules are good, and do what they intended, but they end up being too fiddly in play. I have got really bored of calling for a roll and having to wait for a minute or two while people work out what their relevant rating is after collating all their augments. You just end up with too much stuff on your character sheet.

And I never got my head around extended contests. The just always seemed too unwieldy, and never seemed to add much more drama than simple ones.

Injuries never worked well. Partly our group, I think. Because they're more abstract than marking off hit points or suchlike, they often got forgotten and/or ignored. Especially non-physical injuries (such as injuries to bravery and so on).

My intention to run the Sartar Rising campaign came to nothing. This was actually a good thing - the characters built up their own stories at such a rate that it never seemed like it would be worth throwing in one of those plots. Especially as a lot of them are pretty much going to play out the same regardless of player character input - all this Gloranthan history has been written, so you just get to fill in the details while the big picture remains the same.

But we had a great time. The game was one of the most fun ones I've ever run, although the humour got pretty dire here and there. The rules really do end up putting a whole lot of focus on the characters in a way that more traditional games don't. We intend to come back to these characters and see what happens now, and I'm looking forward to doing that. However, I am quite tempted to use The Shadow of Yesterday as the system. It will probably do everything that I liked about HeroQuest but better.

Advice for others considering running HeroQuest (this is how I'll do it in future):
  • Don't split keywords into individual abilities, just use them as bigass abilities. Have the characters specify only abilities in there that they are better or worse than normal at. That should reduce the ability load on the sheet by half or more.
  • Forget extended contests.
  • Make sure people keep track of injuries properly.
That's all I have to say. HeroQuest's a really good system, but it's still a bit too traditional for me at the moment...

19 March 2005

Review: The new Battlestar Galactica, series one.

This isn't going to be a really detailed review. I'll need to wait until I've watched the whole thing through again for that. Also, it deserves detailed review done episode by episode.

So here's the short review: it's absolutely awesome. Best SF show since... well, since Firefly. Sure, that's not really very long. But if you ignore Firefly, then it's probably the best ever.

Things that I liked: Really good special effects. Great space battles. Brilliant actors in all the main parts. The scene where Starbuck reveals her dark secret to Adama and you think "Balls, he's going to forgive her and maybe hug" and instead he says "You'd better walk out of my office while you still can". It's not scared to be dark, in some cases terrifyingly dark. Also has some great comedy moments here and there (especially Baltar's increasingly bizarre conversations with his imaginary cylon lover). The cylon biotech. How certain characters cope with the gradual realization that they are a cylon spy and not actually human at all.

Things that I didn't like: The most cruel cliff-hanger ending to a series that I can remember. A bit too much philosophizing from some of the cylons. The iconic scientific, rationalist, materialist character is a bad guy.

Yeah, that's it. Not much I didn't like. Watch it. Me, I'm going to get the miniseries again and watch the whole lot through to tide me over until I can see series two.

10 March 2005

Read-through Review of Dogs In The Vineyard

Heh. That didn't take long. Actually, I'm ill and taking the day off work, so sitting at the computer reading through the whole of Dogs In The Vineyard was as good a way to occupy my time as anything else.

To start with, this is a very well-written game. Baker's prose is fairly informal and manages to be clear, fun and really shows how excited he is about his game. The game is filled with summaries of important rules and/or processes and examples, all of which are a cut above the average (or the good, really).

The setting is great. There's just enough detail to get you right into it, the rest left extremely open. It's a western, with the players acting the part of "Dogs" for the Faith. You live in a colony far from the civilized parts of the country, where the people follow a Mormon-like religion. It's specified loosely enough that you could set it in the old West or it could just be a fictional world kind of like that. The Dogs are people authorized by the elders of the Faith to ride through the towns and deal with any sin that they find there. How you deal with it is pretty much up to the players - one example in the game describes a complicated situation in a town that is sorted out by a Dog finding one of the people involved and shooting him dead. Your actions aren't above the law, so you may find yourself in conflict with the legitimate authorities, too. Overall, it is just bursting with neat ideas for characters and scenes in play. I must say, I came out of this chapter wanting to play a Dog who had a secret coffee habit. The Faithful do not approve of coffee or tea, you see, and that's just so much cooler than a secret drunkard. Ha!

The structure of play is essentially that of a wandering Western TV show. The Dogs visit a town, they find out what's wrong, they sort it out and then it's off to the next town. Baker suggests that each town ought to be one session, with the occasional two-parter.

Next is character creation. It's pretty normal. Baker insists that characters be created as a group with everyone brainstorming ideas for the characters together, which I'm certainly in favour of. He provides typical backgrounds for Dogs brought up amongst the Faithful and those who are more recent converts, which add a bit more flavour and spark a few more ideas. There's a description of Dog training and you finish off your character with an attempt to accomplish something in particular during your training (like "Try not to swear so much" or "Impress my teachers"). This is resolved using the full conflict resolution rules to give everyone a first taste of how it works. You also gain one last Trait based on how you did at it.

Your characters can't die or leave play until you want them to or specifically choose to risk their life in a conflict. I approve of this (as noted in my last post) and I've put the same rule into The Ship. I may have even taken the idea from Baker (after reading some of his blog). Also, when you do have your character leave play, you make a new one with the same dice for Stats, Traits and Relationships plus a few bonus ones. It's good to see a little sweetener for people thinking of going out in a blaze of glory (or leave the calling in a huff, even).

Relationships are important and in character generation you reserve some of your dice in this area for later. These can be used at any time to add new Relationships for your character. I like this, for the cinematic 'instant friendship/hatred' that it reflects.

There's also a good section on what the GM ought to be doing during the character generation session. The advice is sound and looks like it will do a good job of making sure that all the Dogs are suited to getting good stories happening.

The description of the conflict resolution system reads well. It copes with any kind of conflict, and has a nice see & raise system that measures how the conflict escalates as you go. There's a lot to describe, so I'll leave it there. Basically, it looks damn good. He finishes off with a section on how the system can do several cool things - like conflicts finished in a split second or drawn out over days.

Next he has a big explanation of how the game is structured. This lays out what happens in different parts of play and what the GM and players should each be doing. It's a good idea and is helpful to understanding the game.

The rest of the book is GM advice and systems.

First up is town creation. Baker explains here the progression of sin in towns and how a little pride can develop into hatred and murder. He takes you through ways that each stage can manifest and has plenty of examples. Then he takes you through a series of steps to develop each town and it's problems. Essentially, you start at the smaller problems - writing a little description of who has done what - and work your way up the progression until you feel like you've got enough going on to fill the required session(s).

Next is NPC creation. Now, you'll have some names and things going on for some of the townsfolk from your town creation but no stats for them yet. Now you go through a partly random, partly arbitrary choice system to write up six "proto-NPCS". These are sets of stats and values for Traits with no names or descriptions attached. As conflicts come up in play, you take one set of numbers and use it for the NPC concerned. Looks like a good way to do things.

Last is the general GM advice section. His advice is very good and he highlights a few things that Dogs in the Vineyard does differently to most games.

One of these is that nobody is supposed to keep stuff secret from the other players. For example, rather than the standard "Roll perception to see if you detect the ambush." you are encouraged to say "These guys are waiting to ambush you behind the barn. What are you gonna do?"

He also wants to make sure you keep on the moral questions that the game's ultimately about. So you shouldn't have a plan for how the problems in a town are resolved, you should just make them interesting. You also need to look at what the players have previously been interested in exploring and make your towns about those problems. And then push them harder on it. Is it worth hurting someone over this? Killing them? What if there's this mitigating circumstance? In some ways that might come across as fairly un-fun, but the game's built to make these issues into fun.

Perhaps the most important advice, I think, is to not decide how it should end. Just set things up and see what the players end up doing. After all, part of their job is to judge. He makes that point somewhere - if a Dog decides to let something stand, that's them saying "The Faith allows you to do that". Or maybe it's the Dog descending into heresy and sin. In either case, it's going to be fascinating to see where it goes.

My last words: this game is absolutely great. Buy it and play it (unless the description all sounds a bit hard, I suppose).

It makes me regret the many years of playing games that focused on all the traditional roleplaying stuff, rather than the great games they could have been instead. Oh well, I just have to catch up now I guess.

And talk about raising the bar on what I'm prepared to publish myself. There was me getting smug about how well I was doing. That little bit of pride won't be going any further, thanks to Mr Baker.