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.

"The Ship" Progress Report & Thoughts About Traditional RPG Design

Well, the game's coming along pretty well. I'm actually quite surprised how easy it's been so far, but that might just because it's a new and fun project.

My last big effort was the Kapcon LARP, of course. I suspect that writing and publishing The Ship is going to end up being a fraction of the work.

I've found it interesting that some of the decisions I made are very unusual for a roleplaying game.

For instance, your player character will never die unless you specifically wish to risk their life in response to at crisis. In some ways that's a really obvious choice - we know that Aubrey and Maturin are going to survive each novel to continue their adventures. However, it's astoundingly rare in roleplaying games, even though it is a natural way to go - in almost all games, we want our character to survive and develop. Obviously we don't want it to be easy for them, otherwise it would be boring. So why do most games allow player characters to die so easy? The only reason is historical - D&D came from wargames, most other games evolved from D&D. At the end of the day, though, it should almost always be a player choice.

Enough ranting there. Anyhow, I've also recently begun reading Vincent Baker's blog which is mainly about game design issues and I've been getting a lot of "he's so right" moments going through the stuff there. A lot of "hmm, that's where I'm going in writing The Ship" as well. Recommended if you are interested in some extremely insightful thoughts on how roleplaying games work. You might disagree with him, but I suspect that you'll think about gaming with a bit more clarity. He's the author of Dogs In The Vineyard, my latest game purchase. I'm reading the pdf now while the hard copy is put in the mail. Expect a review soon. Sneak preview of the review: it's absolutely amazing. Also, the links he has on the Dogs page are great. Except that gentleman's Emporium place won't ship their wonderful Victorian style coats outside the USA. Bah!

05 March 2005

My Amazing Nautical Game Contest

Okay, so I'm doing fine on the actual game design at the moment, well on the way to a draft that I can playtest.

But I still have trouble with the name. The Ship is still the best I have, but it's not that great. I like it now more than when I started but there's no spark in it.

So, in an effort to have someone else help me, I'm going to have a game naming contest. Post a comment if you have any suggestions, and if you come up with a name that I want to use, I'll give you a couple of copies of Game X when I get it to the printing stage.

Things to bear in mind:
  • I'm already occasionally pondering nicking one of O'Brian's titles from the Aubrey novels... The Wine Dark Sea is probably most appealing there (and he nicked that one from Homer anyway).
  • The game's going to include multiple settings. At very least a Napoleonic and a science fiction one and I'd like to do more. So it can't just apply to one of them.
So there you go. Please spend at least a few seconds thinking about it, you may even get a little bit of free stuff out of it.

Film Review: Bubba Ho-tep

Well, after some years of wanting to see it, I finally got around to watching Bubba Ho-tep tonight.

It was really good.

I had wanted to watch it purely on the grounds that it features Elvis fighting an evil mummy, and was fully satisfied in that area.

However, the film actually did a lot more than just being a shlocky B-movie (which I pretty much expected, even though other people had told me to expect more). They did some neat stuff with the myths of Elvis and JFK in there. And Elvis and Jack are both convincing old, mad guys trying to save their rest home from supernatural evil. And it's always possible that they're not mad, and they really are Elvis and JFK. I mean, both their stories are pretty far fetched, but in the world of the movie ancient mummies can suck people's souls out through a very uncomfortable place - who knows what else might be going on?

02 March 2005

Read-through Review of Run Robot Red

I just got hold of Run Robot Red by Annie Rush, after hearing various good things about it here and there.

It's not long, so I read through most of it last night (I skimmed the crunchy bits). It's pretty cool. The basic idea is that you are robots in a communistic robot society in which you must be mediocre. Any robot that is not good enough or too good is punished, only robots that maintain the level of ability mandated by the overseers succeed.

The player characters are all robots who have decided to fight against the system, joining "ART" the conspiracy of those who dare to do things well.

So that's the setting. It reads like it will run kind of like Paranoia but with somewhat different emphasis (i.e. you are required to be mediocre rather than loyal). The game has a definite trajectory, in that you start out as conspirators and there are certain things that you will end up finding out and that will lead to a natural place to end the game. Rush provides the GM with two basic endgames, but it would be easy to add more or mess with those ones if they didn't appeal. Both the provided ones are interesting and should make for a satisfying story.

Also, everything possible using alliterative acronyms, which adds a lot of whimsical style to the thing. I mean, "Optical Openings" is certainly a funnier name than "Optical Sensors". Especially when everything is named like that...

What really stands out is the character creation. The robots are all different, with various standard units, abilities and custom extras to differentiate them. Additionally, robots from different factories have certain types of attachments and personalities common to them. There are a few different character generation methods to choose from, and they all look like they'll give you a crazy bunch of robots to play. The standard utility attachments range from basic arms to pneumatic cannon and electroprods and the factory-specific odd ones are all amusing (and might even be useful!)

The other thing I like is the economy of power. You need to keep track of your battery level. The dice rolled for an action are based on your CPU and the utility being used and this is how much energy will potentially be used. On a normal roll you just roll these and get the power back.


If you roll better than your target number you are over-achieving and risk drawing the attention of the controllers. You can drop dice from your roll to minimize over-achievement, but this wastes energy, so you lose a charge. So you always want to walk the knife edge of doing well enough to get your target number, but never too well. I think this will lead to some funny moments in play, with robots saying "No, you open the door. I'm too good at it!"

Another nice trick is what happens when a robot over-achieves so much that they attract the attention of the controllers. In this circumstance, the robot is informed that an Internal Investigation Bot is on the way to assess them. The GM leaves the room to allow the players to get the robots' stories straight and after at least 30 seconds they return in the persona of the IIBot. Then the GM interviews them to determine if the suspicious robot needs to be memory-wiped and reprogrammed. I suspect that will be hilarious in play.

Overall, a very funny game. Probably only good for the odd short campaign, rather than long term (although there are seeds of some rather different longer campaigns in there).