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.