28 February 2005

February's Book Report

Incidentally, this whole idea is being shared in our household. See Make Tea Not War for some other opinions on many of the same books.

Orbiter by Warren Ellis. Nice little book about wanting more space exploration. I heartily agree with the sentiment.

100 Bullets: The Counterfifth Detective by Brian Azzarello. Okay hard-boiled detective story. The resolution left me pretty 'meh'. Maybe it would have been better after reading the prior volumes - it felt like it might be a deconstruction of their own formula, thus not so interesting if you didn't know the formula already. Oh well.

Lord of Lies by David Zindell. Second volume of the Ea cycle. Much better on this read (second or third, can't remember which). Zindell has an amazing talent to make interesting philosophical questions into good novels. I don't know how, but he does it. Also pretty good as a basic adventure story.

The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross. Bizarre Lovecraftian bureaucratic spy novel. When I first read it, I thought it was fun. Then I spent a week looking back on it appreciating more little things about it. Absolutely great.

Enlightenment by Roy Porter. A history of the Enlightenment in Britain. Very good indeed, and made me nostalgic for studying philosophy. Also made me angry at religion. Can't people just get over it and realise that religion is a dead piece of history? Several of these guys pointed it out 300 years ago, and they were hardly the first. Bah! I also managed to, in a bout of foolishness, take it back to the library when only halfway through. Very annoying. I may have to buy it.

Fitzpatrick's War by Theodore Judson. Set in a few hundred years, in a strangely changed world - electrical technology has been suppressed - this is the memoir of a military engineer who was a close friend of a Alexander the Great style dictator. It seems to be partly a satire of contemporary American fundamentalism and adventurism but it's also a really good portrait of a man who contributes to some evil deeds and his moral awakening to what he took part in. So, a lot of humour for a serious book. The putative editor of the memoir is constantly putting in amusing footnotes to make sure you know when the memoir goes away from the historical record or is simply obscene or ridiculous by his standards. To be fair, we really don't know if Bruce, the soldier, is more reliable than the editor, but it seems that he is. Very good indeed. I shall certainly be looking out for more of Judson's writing.

The Golden Age, The Phoenix Exultant and The Golden Transcendance
by John C Wright. Dense but interesting transhumanist science fiction. The first book takes a while to get into, as he just drops you into the world of at least 30,000 years into the future and a lot doesn't make sense for a few chapters. Stick with it. Once you get a handle on the different kinds of minds that people have then, this is a fantastic story of Phaeton, an adventurous soul in an unadventurous paradise. Great ideas and some sublimely funny moments, such as when one of the characters is travelling through the wilderness, lighting a campfire with her heat projector and living just like her ancestors in the stone age.

Rifles by Mark Urban. A very readable history of the 95th Rifles from 1809-1815. That is Sharpe's regiment, by the way. Urban does a great job of getting to the stories of the men there, focussing on a few particular people to tell the story. A must-read for any Sharpe fan, and a should-read for anyone with an interest in that piece of history. It's particularly interesting to read the facts about events that Cornwell writes Sharpe into. It's also terrifying - I really can't imagine how anyone could go through such events without succumbing to utter despair...

The Right Hand of God by Russell Fitzpatrick. Final one of the trilogy. Let me say again how wonderful it is to discover a series by an author who finished the whole lot before publishing, so that they are released rapidly. I raise a toast to Mr Fitzpatrick in recognition of his industry! In terms of the actual story, it ends... unexpectedly. Not quite a standard fantasy novel conclusion. Interesting, and I think I'll need to ponder the implications of it for a while before I completely get what happened. Good, just like the first two.

The Remarkable Worlds of Professor Phineas B Fuddle by Boaz and Erez Yakin. Very strange, very funny comic about a couple of scientists from a ludicrous steampunky world journeying to some very odd alternate histories.

The Zenith Angle by Bruce Sterling. I have a distinct memory of writing about this already but do not appear to have actually done so. Not his usual stuff, but a pretty brutal indictment of the anti-terrorist culture in the USA at the moment. My memory is too vague for anything more specific than that.

"High concept"

I like to read publicity blurbs on books for their general absurdity. Recently, I've noticed that a lot of science fiction novels (or authors) seem to be being described as "High concept". I could never work out what it meant - the books labelled this way don't seem to have anything in particular in common.

Last night, noticing another such comment (describing Robert Reed's Marrow) it suddenly dawned on me what it means.

"This author has really fucking weird ideas."

I'd be interested to hear if anyone agrees or has an alternative definition for the term.

25 February 2005

Read-through Review of Conspiracy of Shadows

Conspiracy of Shadows by Keith Senkowski is a fantasy game about fighting evil conspiracies in a setting based on the dark ages in central/eastern Europe. The evil conspiracies are left for individual gaming groups to determine the nature of, but are clearly expected to be Lovecraftian or devil cults in most cases. The main vibe that I get off the game after reading it through is that it will play like Buffy or Angel in a different setting. I get the impression that this is entirely on purpose (especially with one of the sample demons apparently inspired by a monster from a Buffy episode).

The character generation specifically sets up the PC group as united in fighting the conspiracy, and you can buy group resources like contacts and a library and a base and so forth that all can draw on.

The art is all very evocative. Better than most big game companies, too.

The setting is good. As mentioned, it has a Dark Ages Central/Eastern European flavour which is unusual. I felt that the cultures and states provided all had enough familiarity to play them without just being 'country x with a different name'. And it's hard to forgive him one thing... the Narrlachi invaders (similar to the Huns) who still rule a big chunk of the place. Well, their great khan was from the Chaka clan. Ahem.

Character creation is fairly simple and directed. First choose why you are fighting the conspiracy and your character's main passion. Then add various stats and skills. That's pretty much it. All of the cultures give you a special ability related to their character, too. So, simple but directed to what the game is about.

There's a short chapter on magic, divided into two types. There's witchblood, which means you can do some crazy magic innately, until somebody burns you as a witch. Then there's ritual magic, that looks to be your basic summon or banish demons magic, and associated bits.

Combat has a few neat elements. You have a pool of points representing your energy. You spend these to do combat actions. If you succeed on an action, you can immediately take another before the next character, until you run out. I can see some cool combats in which desperate characters hit their enemies with a brutal flurry of attacks happening quite often.

One nice rule is destiny points, which are kind of a karma thing. You gather them and spend them to increase rolls when required. However, you earn them from doing things like adding your own details to the setting. So everyone is encouraged to chip in with ideas for what's going on in the game.

The advice on creating your conspiracy for the players to fight is good but unfortunately short. I was hoping for a bit more. Oh well. Luckily Senkowski is planning a supplement that has more stuff in this area which looks like it will make up for that lack.

There's a rule for seeing horrific stuff and freaking out. Not anything like Call of Cthulhu's sanity rules, it's more a 'panic' rule. There is a rule for slowly turning to the dark side as well, but it's separate and really quite creepy.

There's also a section on making up evil supernatural creatures for the PCs to take out. This is great and they're easy to design. I can see myself getting some horrible, horrible ideas from the powers.

Also, Senkowski has lots of support on his website, including regular bits of setting - new monsters and things and discussion about playing the game.

Overall, a really solid game to do what it sets out to. I look forward to running it, and hope my regular players are getting ready to fear the things that they'll be fighting.

23 February 2005

Read-through Review of The Shadow of Yesterday

Well, my moderate mail order package came yesterday so here's the first review. I skimmed Conspiracy of Shadows but it didn't initially grab me as much as The Shadow of Yesterday, so that's the one I read first.

The Shadow of Yesterday is by Clinton R Nixon, one of the two guys who runs The Forge. The game is his attempt to write what he wanted D&D to have been. Our lives in the alternate worlds where The Shadow of Yesterday was the first roleplaying game are much richer than this one. Lucky alternate selves.

I should note that although I bought a copy from Indie Press Revolution, you can get the whole thing free online. I don't regret my USD$20, as the art is good and I don't like to read online. I guess I could have reformatted the html version, printed it and had it bound but that would have taken more of my time than the actual cost of the printed version is worth. But it can be free if you want it, which is friendly of Mr Nixon.

My first comment is that I have to love any game in which, as I make up a character on my first proper read through, he turns out as a sword-slinging adventurer - so far so normal - who is also a decadent poisoner searching the world for true love. I mean, this guy has some serious cool, and I was just picking up on the first thing I liked for each step.

That's moves nicely on to my first comment. Character generation is both simple and very evocative. He encourages making up your own abilities, secrets and keys (more on these below). I like games where you can define your own skills and suchlike, it just allows the player to give that much more personal detail to the character. In fact, my first guy I mentioned has a couple of things of my own invention.

Characters are defined by three pools (basic stats) and a bunch of abilities (skills). These are grouped into A, B and C types which govern how good you are in those areas. You also have secrets and keys. Secrets are much like feats in D&D 3rd edition and so on - they give you a special ability of some kind. The secrets provided are almost all either useful or extremely nifty (and sometimes both).

Keys are something new, I think. A few games (e.g. The Riddle of Steel) have similar ideas but this takes it to another level. Keys define how the character gains experience. You can have up to five. Each defines how much XP you get for doing different things. Here's the one I made up for my first character, which shows the basic structure:

Key of the Romantic
: Your character is searching for his true love, who is waiting for them... somewhere. Gain 1XP every time you flirt with a possible lover. Gain 2XP whenever you endanger yourself or neglect your duties to court someone. Gain 5XP if a woman accepts his courtship for life. Buyoff: Decide that true love is a myth.

The main features are that you choose how your character advances, and you also choose how fast they do it (by determining how many keys you have). Note that fast advancement isn't necessarily what you will want, see below about character transcendence. Also, there is that 'Buyoff' note. Every key has one. Anytime you want (and that circumstance is met) you can just throw away that key and get 10XP (that's exactly the number to buy a new Key, by the way). This allows you to make sudden changes of personality for the character pretty much when you decide you want to change how they go. This, I think, will make for some good roleplaying. I can already imagine how much fun I might have with buying off that particular Key.

That covers the character generation chapter. Next is the resolution mechanics. Nothing too revolutionary at first, a simple roll 2d6 + ability to get a result which gives you a level of success. Nixon has a good section on the stages involved in an ability check, stripping it down to the theoretical bone of what's going on. This is probably not strictly necessary but it's a good analysis of what the roll means in this game and how to think about each stage of what is normally just someone saying "I kill him!" [dice roll] "Yeah, eight bazillion damage!"

Rolls can be modified by bonus and penalty dice. If you have bonus dice you roll this many extra dice and pick the best two for your result. If you have penalty dice you do the same but pick the worst ones. These can come from terrible context to your action, secrets, magic and similar. A nice touch, however, is the gift of dice. Each session, all players (including the GM) get a pool of dice - one for each player - which can be given to anyone else as bonus dice whenever you want. So if you want to help another player's character in a tight spot, or just think they're cool, you can help them succeed. Nice.

For focusing on really important conflicts, there is a rule called Bringing Down the Pain. This allows a player character to refuse to accept any result of a contested ability check and instead moves into a more detailed, brutal resolution system. This reads like combat in most roleplaying games but applies to absolutely any conflict in this one. It looks like it works well but I'll reserve further comment until I have played it out a few times.

Tangentially, allow me to say that Nixon's examples of play are really great. They are both fun to read and also illustrate the concepts very well.

Your three basic pools get spent to use special abilities and give yourself bonus dice. These get refreshed by certain actions, as are abilities in The Dying Earth. I liked that idea there and I still like it here.

Another aspect of the game I particularly like is the idea of character transcendence. If anyone builds up an ability to level 10 (that's the highest possible) and rolls a 12 on an ability check (that's also the highest possible) then they transcend. The player can narrate the godlike results of the action however they want, the sun or moon is eclipsed and the character's story is ended within the next day... they might retire, die, whatever. But they have achieved the most awesome thing they will ever do and that's going to be it for them. This might seem a little harsh for a character you love, but you control whether you go to level 10 in any abilities. Personally, the idea of the character who has done the ultimate and thus no longer needs to be going on adventures is really appealing.

Last is the section on the world. This is intentionally left pretty open. Nixon says that he removed everything he had written that wasn't an essential part of the background, so that the cool ideas would be there but the details could be determined by each group. That seems a fine plan and I salute him for it. The species and cultures of the world of Near are indeed interesting and open to interpretation, and I think most gamers will find something to build a character on and plenty to spark their imaginations there. I won't repeat any details as you can just go read the source yourself.

Overall, a great little fantasy game that may just tempt me to throw out HeroQuest. Maybe I could just substitute these rules and keep playing in Glorantha, but I'm tempted to go the whole hog and play this as described. My gaming group are all keen to keep playing HeroQuest, but I think that everything they like about that game is doubly (or more) present in The Shadow of Yesterday.

Expect reviews of Conspiracy of Shadows and maybe some more in-depth comments on Capes in the next short period of time.

Oh, and in case anybody is interested, here's that character I made up:

A wandering Ammeni swordsman looking for excitement, plunder and also true love.
Vigor 5, Instinct 6, Reason 3, Advances 5
Innate A
Athletics 3
Reaction 3
Resist 1
Stay up 1
Fighting A
Swordfighting 4
Wrestling 2
First aid 1
Social B
Savoir-faire 4
Outdoor B
Herb lore 2
Woodscraft 1
Illicit B
Stealth 1
Craft C
Bladework 2
Distill herbs 1
Secrets & Keys
Secret of the Signature Weapon (his sword).
Secret of the Serpent Blade (that's the ability to make blade-poisons).
Key of the Romantic.

21 February 2005

New Project... Nautical Matters

Well, I have decided to write and publish a game. When I say that, I mean to self-publish, almost definitely distributed via the Internet.

I have had a couple of ideas hanging around. One is a game of professional wrestlers fighting evil in a world full of magic, monsters and other weirdness and the other is a game of naval adventure based mainly on the Aubrey & Maturin and Hornblower novels. A few days of uncertainty about which to pursue was ended when a whole bunch of vague ideas clicked into place for the naval game, so that's the one I'm going to go with.

Currently the plan is to focus entirely on how the player characters react to crises or problems that occur during their expeditions. I'm currently planning on a mechanic where the player will describe how their character reacts to a crisis including describing what they are risking, and that a bad roll to resolve the plan will mean that whatever was put at risk will be lost.

There'll also be a big focus on social issues and detailing the members of the crew so that the players get to know and value them. The possibility for fish-out-of-water adventures when our heroes are ashore will also be there (some of my favorite Aubrey stories are of this sort, so I shall not be neglecting them).

The game will also be somewhat generic in setting, as any ship with a rigid hierarchy and in a hostile situation will be able to use these rules. I'm planning to write up settings for a British Royal Navy frigate in the Napoleonic wars, an early Spanish or Portuguese explorer and a science fiction setting reminiscent of the Honor Harrington books. I may also add pirate and submariner settings.

Currently the working title is The Ship, which is crap. Any readers with a better suggestion, please put it in a comment!

15 February 2005

Capes Play Thoughts, Sooner Than Expected

My regular HeroQuest game was down two players so we decided to give Capes a try, with just the demo version plus all the free download click & lock character bits.

It was fun. That's the basic review. We managed to create what was really a pretty terrible comic, one of those late 80s/early 90s stupid crossover universe destroying stories. But we all had a good laugh.

As is usual in a first game, we got a bunch of the rules wrong which might have made play a bit smoother if we had them right. The demo leaves a lot of stuff unclear, which is fair enough, and a read through the full rules this morning cleared up most of them. I'm still not sure when a scene should end, though. A scene is basically a bunch of action taking place at one time and/or place but there doesn't seem to be a particular place to stop one. We did it by mutual agreement. Whenever all the conflicts were resolved or if there were only one or two less interesting ones left we moved on.

A lot of the rules about power use, the debt you gain for it, and stakes were complicated the first time but I suspect they'll quickly become second nature and allow you to focus on the tactics to get the story told the way you want. In fact, one guy in our group was already doing this by the end of the session (he's always good at picking that sort of thing up).

The main thing was that the way conflicts and scene setup kept changing the story in unpredictable ways was great. We had some really funny subplot conflicts and neat action scenes coming out of who did what using what abilities.

The characters were great fun too. We all enjoyed putting them together with the click & lock parts, even though they weren't cut out and we had to copy it all down on paper.

My favourite part had to be when I had two characters, one a superhero and one a supervillain, who were fighting each other to the death... that was pretty funny, as I looked at the conflicts in play and realised the only one that either character could contribute usefully two was the 'Event: Cold Steel dies', so Quantum Boy attacked Cold Steel and Cold Steel attacked him right back. Quantum Boy won by teleporting the robot's brain out and then Ferocia knocked it into a lava pit. A good end for an evil robot villain, I think.

I'm really looking forward to my next play of the game. But maybe not looking forward to issue #2 of that particular story arc.

11 February 2005

Capes: Initial Look

Okay, so I caved and ordered Capes (and Conspiracy of Shadows and The Shadow of Yesterday). The author kindly allows you to download a pdf of the game once you've ordered, so I got to skim it already even though I expect it will take a fair while for the physical book to arrive.

It looks really good, capturing a lot of the bits of comics that don't quite make it into a more traditional rpg.

It's a very uncoventional type of game, and I can't envision how it will play. Like Scarlet Wake, there's no gamemaster and everyone takes turns controlling narration. However, Capes goes a bit further away from a normal game format. Similarly to Scarlet Wake, there's a fairly complex set of things you can do to attempt to control the narration, and I think you'd need to play it for a while before it clicks into place. Capes also has by default no ownership of characters. So the fact you play a hero or villain on one 'page' (pretty much a game round) doesn't mean you'll keep doing so on the next. This sounds to me like it will be fun, in a crazy way, but I suspect that most groups will end up making a house rule that you can claim certain favorite characters as your and yours alone. Then again, who can resist the fact that you will be able to play (and, indeed, invent) the villains as the story plays out?

There are a lot of good ideas to keep the feel right. One example is the group's 'Comics Code' - a list of rules for the game. So you might have that superheroes never die. This leads into a rule that if you try to do these (say a villain wants to kill Captain Zap) then they just can't succeed... instead there's a rule for 'gloating' which means that they don't succeed but the player gets to stock up on some of the game resource tokens.

So, the quick read through review is: it looks really good but you need to play it, not just read it. Specifically, I need to play it. It will probably be at least a few weeks before I can arrange it, too bad. On the other hand, that gives the main time to cross the Pacific.

Also, there's a character generation method where you basically pick two little cards that fit together - one is powers/skills and the other is personality. They're awesomely well done and I suspect that one of the fun parts of any game would be fitting those together to get new 'Neurotic High-tech Mooks' and so forth. Also fun to look for which pair would make favorite superheros. It is just cool.

06 February 2005

Not Much Activity

Well, I managed to run the live game at Kapcon okay, despite rather a lot of attempts by the world to prevent it at the last moment. In any case the work we all put in did the trick and the game ran close to smoothly. Everybody seemed to enjoy themselves, and lots of neat stuff happened. More discussion of it lives here, in case anybody is interested.

I was planning on writing a bit of a post about running such things but I decided I didn't have much to say. Here is my essential wisdom (based on running dozens of one-off live games for 10-20 people, playing in a couple of ongoing World of Darkness ones, helping run a 3-day 55-player one and now being in charge of a one-off 70-player one):
  • If you have the urge to organise a big live game, don't. Really. It's hard. I guess somebody has to do it, but be very wary about taking it on. Note that it took me six years to forget enough about the experience of Aliens: Apocalypse (that's the 3-day one) before I was foolish enough to volunteer to run the Kapcon one.
  • The rules should be as simple as possible. The only changes you ever make to the rule system should be to simplify them. Never, ever use dice or compare stats on character sheets or anything like that. That's already to complex.
  • Pick reliable helpers. I had a lot of people volunteer to help and then drop out. I don't actually have a problem with that - they were all pretty up front about it - but it would have been better to have people who stuck at it (obviously).
  • When you put little explanatory notes on the gadgets for people to read in game, double check that each note is with the correct gadget.
There, that's it. I mean, make sure you get everything done on time and stuff like that, obviously.

I hope to soon put up some reviews of Capes and The Shadow of Yesterday but so far I can neither afford to buy them nor do I have time to play them.

I've had a read through the demo version of Capes that you can get off the website and it looks neat. However, I really have no idea how it will play - reading the demo just doesn't give you a good feel for how it will be. So I'm not saying anything about that until I give it a go.

The Shadow of Yesterday is a fantasy game that takes most of the stuff I love about HeroQuest a bit further, in a more Conan style. A free version is available at the website there, which I have read, but I'm planning to buy the whole thing, so it doesn't seem worth reviewing the cut down web edition. I will say that it looks really good, especially for my developing policy of running games with no preparation at all.