19 December 2006

Development Playtest Report: Last Stand

My current main project is Last Stand. This is a game about modern day benandanti, intended to have a feel reminiscent of Buffy the Vampire Slayer - concerned with a group of friends tasked with defending the community the live in.

The setup involves defining a bunch of things about the town and people that the good walkers (player characters - that's a transliteration of the original term) know. Key details are the numbers allocated to stats, choice of a single magic power and the animal form that this good walker takes in the dream battles.

The gamemaster gets to do this all for the witches that live in the town also, although so far I have done this on the fly as required.

Character generation has been problematic so far, with a little much creativity required on a fairly blank slate. This seems to be difficult and probably the game needs more direction in this area. This was particularly pronounced in the second playtest, aimed at testing a one-off including character generation for Kapcon. It doesn't look like that idea will fly, so I'll be writing pregenerated characters for this, as usual.

The other problem I had in both games is that the current rules lend a lot of structure to certain types of scenes which tends to mean they are aimed firmly at a particular goal, often detracting from the quality of play involved. I'm not sure how to address this. Partly this is because I'm pretty sure the main reason was general tiredness and lack of inspiration on my own part, and maybe from the rest of the group too. It might be that a more relaxed attitude, and letting things play out naturally, will be all that is needed. On the other hand, there are definitely some gamemaster preparation elements that could help too, and I may need to make sure that these are supported (e.g. have a list of names for new townsfolk who are met in play, more guidance about the effects of battles on real life).

I've said all that without introducing the overall shape of play, so I'll finish off with that instead. The good walkers all start after a defeat in one of the nighttime battles. Defeats manifest in real life as personal and community wide misfortunes based on the type of challenges that were lost. Play begins with scenes of normal life in which the good walkers must deal with this fallout and perhaps try to mitigate the damage done. Once this is played out, a night battle occurs and the good walkers must defeat the witches in surreal challenges. After this is resolved, play returns to real life and the consequences once more. When play begins a definite end game is also decided upon - if the good walkers are not successful soon, the community will be destroyed or corrupted by the witches, and the endgame condition is basically how close to this point they are as the story begins.

The bits that worked really well in play were the battles and direct followup scenes, so maybe the best idea is to start with a battle instead of just after one... hmm...

Rumours of War by Allan Mallinson

The Matthew Hervey series continues to get better in this novel. I'm not sure if he planned this all along, but Mallinson fills much of this novel set in and about 1826 Portugal with Hervey's memories of 1808 Portugal (the retreat to Corunna, in particular).

This feels kind of like a copout - an easy way to pad out a series - but not actually because it's bad or anything. More because it felt like he'd intentionally started with Hervey well begun on his career, that these early years were not so important. On the other hand, the naive Hervey of 1808 is definitely interesting to compare to his world-weary self of 1826.

10 December 2006

Nintendo Wii - First Impressions

So, we decided to get one of these. Gaming consoles are a strange new adventure for me, having never liked the controllers, I never owned one before. The Wii's motion-sensitive controllers are what attracted me to it, and they are pretty damn cool.

We've had a lot of fun with it, even though we are just on the tutorial games that came with an extra controller and the bundles Wii Sports games. Not much to these, but the controllers make them a lot of fun even so.

The Daughter of the House enjoys the cow-racing tutorial, which is played by tilting the controller. She can't quite manage it alone yet, but she's getting there. Myself and Make Tea Not War have been enjoying the tennis game, although I personally find myself just as bad at it as I was at actual tennis, as far as I can recall. Oh well.

The selection of games available is still fairly slim and, from reviews, it seems like few of them really use all the controllers' potential. We may be waiting some time for that, I suppose.

The Sabre's Edge by Allan Mallinson

Further adventures of Matthew Hervey, now Captain and in India and Burma in 1826. Still good stuff.

Stumbling On Happiness by Daniel GIlbert

An interesting and thought provoking study about the nature of happiness and why people are terrible at deciding what to do to improve their lives. Probably ought be mandatory reading for basically everyone (even if it's not 100% true, it's still worth exposing your decision making process to criticism of this sort, I think).

22 November 2006

The Cowboy Dog by Nigel Cox

An extremely strange but absorbing novel. In many ways similar to the comic Hicksville by Dylan Horrocks, it is a myth of a bit of New Zealand that doesn't actually exist.

Specifically, it's about a young man who grew up as a cowboy on the volcanic plateau of the North Island. But it's not the plateau we actually know - it's a chunk of the US Southwest circa 1910 or so, just smack in the middle of what is otherwise a normal contemporary New Zealand.

The story itself is about growing up and revenge, the kind of thing you might hear in a Johnny Cash song (and those songs get a lot of references in the book too).
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A Regimental Affair by Allan Mallinson

The third story about dragoon Matthew Hervey. The series seems to get better each novel - no more simple, heroic adventures. Instead, the stories illustrate the complexities of the times (in this case circa 1817).

Hervey is also a thoughtful observer of what is going on around him, and this becomes more the focus of the stories. The social side of life is also important, taking up much of the novel.

16 November 2006

Out Of Eden by Stephen Oppenheimer

This is an explanation of the latest findings on how and when people colonized the world. It's interesting stuff, and a lot was new to me.

However, the author doesn't really do it justice. The book has more detail on various genetic markers than I think necessary for a lay audience. Certainly I found that the level of detail detracted from the central findings rather than illustrating them. He also uses the terms 'son' and 'daughter', as well as names (Cain, Abel, Seth, Krishna), when discussing these genetic markers. I am pretty sure that what he means here is that these 'sons' and 'daughters' are descendant lineages from common ancestors. However, the metaphor is pushed pretty hard and sometimes it appears that he might be talking about literal parent-child relationships.

So, interesting but a bit difficult in places. Worth reading if the topic is of interest.
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13 November 2006

Any Approaching Enemy by Jay Worrall

This is number two in yet another Napoleonic naval adventure series. It's definitely ahead of the pack, though. The characters are interesting and the dialog is great (and often hilarious, especially between Captain Edgemont and his wife who is a pacifist).

Well worth looking up if you enjoy this sort of story - possibly up there with O'Brian. And on that subject, a certain Lieutenant Aubrey makes a short cameo appearance in this novel, which is quite fun.

10 November 2006

Honourable Company by Allan Mallinson

The second book about (now) Captain Hervey has him appointed aide-de-camp to the Duke of Wellington and immediately sent to India on a secret mission.

Happily, he turns out to be absolutely terrible as a secret agent, making his general competence at everything else bearable.

The story itself involves intrigues between some Indian states and the British East India Company, which our hero (needless to say) ends up in the middle of.

Good stuff all round.

08 November 2006

Actual Play Report: OctaNe

Well, we played OctaNe the other night. It worked pretty much as well as it looked like it would.

It played out as a pseudo-Sergio Leone post apocalyptic western as our heroes - a High Plains Drifter, an Ultra-vixen, a Rock and Roll Witch and a Fast Food Ninja all chased a mcguffin around, trying to prevent it falling into the hands of Big Liz the gila monster queen and her army of midgets. A few memorable extras turned up, such as an alien sheriff and Satan. There was also a nice sequence where the mcguffin turned a lazy old dog into a cyborg laser-eyeball death beast, luckily hit with a nullifier ray before it destroyed the Earth.

Comedy delivered: check.
Preperation needed - zero: check.

I recommend this game. At least for psychotronic film fans.

A Close Run Thing by Allan Mallinson

Huzzah! Another good Napoleonic military adventure series!

This is the first in a series about Matthew Hervey, an urbane cavalry officer. This novel generally introduces him and ends with him at the battle of Waterloo.

A generally good read, although Hervey is so supremely good at almost everything that I did not really find myself concerned that he would not come out on top in the end. Of course, in these stories that can be generally taken for granted in any case. But Hervey has none of the brutality of Sharpe or the complete obliviousness to certain areas of Aubrey. Still, the story is gripping and often fun. And his ability to know about almost everything and do almost anything is amusing as well.

The story also reflects Hervey's gentlemanly nature in the detail of battles presented. Mallinson is notably less graphic in his descriptions of battle and the effects thereof than most authors of similar novels. This is not to say that terrible scenes do not occur, but they are not quite as gruelling as some of the battles in the Sharpe novels, for example.

How Invention Begins by John Lienhard

This book is a study of technological invention, looking beyond the stereotyped heroic inventors at the wider streams of change that led to various key technologies. The main case studies are flight, steam power and printing.

Lienhard discusses a lot around each of these topics, building a larger case about the nature of invention and technological change in general. On top of this, of course, there's also the stories of all the other people involved in the same technologies, who didn't quite make it, or improved things afterwards, and so forth.

His concluding discussion deals with the way education and the ideas about invention have changed, and suggests a thought-provoking thesis that the way we think about these now encourages further change. I'm not sure I completely agree with that, but it's an interesting idea.
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04 November 2006

Going Postal by Terry Pratchett

Yet another re-read*. Probably my favorite of the discworld novels, this has a lot of neat stuff going on in it. The basic story - a convicted conman forced to go straight by Vetinari in order to reopen the defunct post office - is fun, and the various subplots and themes are all very interesting too.

* I was ill last week, so ran out of unread books, you see.

Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

Another re-read. This is one of the better of his early books (being only the eighth discworld novel). Fun, and interesting to see again how the watch characters were originally introduced.

Provisional Review of Full Light, Full Steam by Joshua BishopRoby

Note: provisional review means that it's not really thorough. The game's not out yet, so I'm working from reading the pdf that I got for preordering. It's also too long for me to effectively read the full pdf, so this is really just general impressions.

Full Light, Full Steam is a steampunk game about the alternate-Victorian Royal Astronomical Navy. This means, in short, that you fly big spaceships around the solar system, helping maintan Britain's Imperial assets.

The setting is all good stuff. It brings to mind all the good stuff from the old game Space: 1899, as well as an 'expedition to Mars' one-shot I ran a few times several years ago. The setting chapter is good fun, with all the information presented as excerpts from in-game handbooks and magazines.

What sets the game apart from most is the extensive work to make what the players want to do be the center of play all the time. There's a chapter on 'The First Session' that goes over various social issues to consider before getting started on character generation. It's all good advice, although I suspect most gaming groups will be able to move through these pretty quick (probably not even needing to explicitly address some of them).

Characters get various stats, the most important being three 'thematic batteries', each a descriptive word or phrase (e.g. 'rake' or 'mad inventor'). These are used to focus play. Most straightforwardly, the player can 'charge' a battery any time by taking a roll penalty that reflects the battery. Later on, you can use the charged battery to give you a bonus in another situation that reflects it.

I'm also very keen to try the situation engineering rules. Basically, play situations are built by the GM using 'cogs' - individual characters, settings or props - that are built with reference to characters' thematic batteries (and a few other sources of inspiration). This system is all done in a lot of detail, and looks like fun. Also, everyone can join in here - it's not just the GM whe has to do all this work.

The last unique aspect I want to mention is the 'spoils scrip'. Every player starts with one of these, a strip of paper basically. Whenever you make reference in play to another character's thematic battery, you pass it to the relevant player and they sign the paper. You then gain 'spoils' (kind of experience points) - more if this is their first signature on the scrip this scene. The scrip also restricts scene changes - scenes can only end once everyone has signed a scrip or you pass it to someone for a character who isn't present (allowing you to jump to a scene about that character).

Those are all interesting ideas, and I'm looking forward to seeing how they play out. The other thing that really stands out is that this game is just packed with advice on how to play. It all reads as good advice, although a lot of it may be old hat to a lot of gamers. Like Dogs in the Vineyard, Full Light, Full Steam is carefully written to tell you how to play. However, the latter is more like a full (period) technical manual.

I'll follow with another review once I have the paper book in my hands (probably in a month or so).

Iron Sunrise by Charles Stross

This was a re-read. Still a great book. The ideas aren't really as interesting as those in Singularity Sky but the story is at least as good.
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World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks

This is a totally deadpan oral history of a global war against zombies that is allegedly going to happen in 5-10 years or so.

Brooks claims in the introduction that he as chief researcher for a UN research group measuring the costs of the war, and that this is a supplementary volume showing the human stories he encountered along the way as he interviewed people worldwide.

The book is structured to illustrate the development of the zombie problem, starting with small outbreaks in China through to the humanity's global fight to survive and eventual success. The story occurs half in the interviews and half in what they imply in the gaps.

Brooks has done an excellent job of capturing both the style of real oral histories, and creating interesting, often compelling, characters and stories. He lets a few jokes in here and there, but they're for the reader - as far as the narration goes, they are just straight facts of life.

As an aside, reading this made me aware of an important aspect of why I find zombies a fascinating horror genre. As I sat there thinking 'what would I do if that happened to me?' and realised that it is exactly that. The appeal of zombies is:
1. You can think about what you would do if it happened - tactics, tools, where you would go, etc.
2. It will never actually happen. NEVER.
Combined, those certainly make zombies a lot more fun to consider than (for example) climate change, major earthquakes or flu pandemics.

Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett

This is Pratchett's latest, the third of his stories about Tiffany Aching. It's a bit more mature than the first too, although obviously still aimed at teenage readers.

It's also a good story, with lots of fun bits. At first the various doings of the witches seemed a bit uninspired, covering the same ground he's been over before. However, the story soon kicks off and any feelings of sameness I had were left behind.
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24 October 2006

The Line Between by Peter S Beagle

This is a collection of short works. I normally stay away from these, but Beagle is such a good author I decided to give it a read. The cover blurb focuses on the fact that it includes a story that is a sequel to The Last Unicorn. This, however, is one of the least interesting stories in the collection (it's still good, but it feels like no more than an epilog for the other book).

Most of the stories are fantastic, and several hilarious. A couple of examples, to whet your appetite:
- Gordon, the Self-Made Cat is a fairy-tale style story of a mouse who - upon hearing of the ecology of cats and mice - decides he is damn well going to become a cat instead. So he goes off to cat school determined to be the best cat in the class...
- El Regalo is a story about a 12 year old girl who finds out that her 8 year old brother is a witch. It's a nice, modern, fantasy tale. And, unlike Harry Potter, they act like kids really might when they get to do magic stuff.
- Mr Sigerson is a story Beagle wrote for a collection about Sherlock Holmes' missing years. It works due to the narrator - the conductor of a small town orchestra that Holmes joins while incognito. They end up solving a mystery (of course) but what makes it work is the narrators instant and total dislike for Holmes. They are intentionally similar dry intellectual types, and their interaction is wonderful.
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The Hell-fire Clubs by Geoffrey Ashe

A tour of anti-moral and hedonistic groups and philosophy that centres on the famous Hell-fire Clubs of 18th century Britain. Ashe looks at a number of related (or just similar) groups that defied public mores, generally in order for the members to have lots of sex.

In some ways it's a little disappointing - given the legends associated with the groups, the reality is somewhat unimaginative and tawdry. However, there's still a lot of interesting stuff in here.

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Read-through Review of Cold City by Malcolm Craig

Cold City is a very cool game. It has the characters playing members of a multinational group in 1950 Berlin, tasked with hunting down remnant monsters created by the Nazis.

The setting is neat, with lots of good information about the state of Berlin at the time. The monsters in the book were perhaps a little uninspired, but that is easily sorted out by re-reading some Hellboy or Tim Powers' Declare. This might also be simply a matter of taste.

The system seems like a solid conflict resolution system. One nice touch is that yoiur traits must be neutrally worded and can be positive or negative, switching due to fallout from conflicts (for example). There's also a system to measure trust between the players, pretty much a second generation of the trust mechanics in The Mountain Witch.

Character generation is really good - I particularly like that you have to choose your stereotyping of the other nationalities as part of it. Each character also has a national and personal secret agenda, a convert goal that pretty much defines an endgame for them if they achieve it.

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22 October 2006

Read-through Review of Don't Rest Your Head by Fred Hicks

Don't Rest Your Head is a very cool little game which feels like it's a mashup of the games Dead Inside and Unknown Armies and the film Dark City (those are all listed as influences, coincidentally enough).

The setting is that the player characters are insomniacs who have, for some reason, crossed into a nightmarish world of half-waking half-dreaming fantasy. Character generation starts with answering a few questions that are half building your chracter's history and also huge flags for the GM to hang stories off. You then define an 'exhaustion talent' and a 'madness talent'. These are super powers, the exhaustion one allows you to do something normal supremely well and the madness one allows you to do any crazy magic thing you want.

There's some listed areas and inhabitants of the Mad City (as this area/state is known) but I found them better as inspiration than as something to be used unchanged. In fact, my biggest problem with the game is the obvious missing question for each character in generation: "What is your Nightmare?" It seems that having each player define whatever is after each character would work better than fitting them into the machinations of the nightmares in the book. That shouldn't be taken as a harsh criticism - it's both easily dealt with and minor given the overall quality of the game.

I absolutely love the system. It involves various colours of dice. The GM gets a colour for 'pain' dice. Players have to have different coloured 'discipline', 'exhaustion' and 'madness' dice. Now, players always roll their discipline and exhaustion dice and may optionally roll as many madness dice as they wish. The GM rolls however many pain dice as are appropriate to the difficulty of the conflict. Low rolls are successes, and the highest success count wins. The cool bit is that the type of dice with the highest showing roll matters too. Whatever that is dominates the situation and has effects in terms of narration and fallout. So there are two axes of resolution - success vs failure and 'how it happened'. I think this will be very cool in play, causing spins on narration that add a lot to play.

The other mechanic is a steady spiral down. The characters are going to steadily be gaining exhaustion and madness. Too much exhaustion and they fall asleep and become prey to the nightmares. Too much madness and they become a nightmare themselves. Gaining these scores generally occurs when that type of dice dominates after a conflict. It is possible to buy back your discipline and end the game back as a normal person, too, but it looks hard (and relies on another economy of hope and despair coins that I don't have a handle on after just one read through).

There's some brief, but good, advice on how to put sessions together based on the way each player answered the questions during character generation. They make a very good set of flags, and Hicks teases out how to use each to the best effect.

The other thing worth commenting on is the graphic design - it's fantastic, really pushing the game's feel at you all the way through.

Very cool game. I'm aiming to try this one out quite soon, possibly even tomorrow.

19 October 2006

Read-through Review of OctaNe by Jared A Sorenson

OctaNe is a game inspired by psychotronic film, with a basic setting of crazy post-apocalytic America.

Mechanically, it's a simpler version of InSpectres (no surprise there). The basic setup is fun, funny and gives you plenty to work with. The character archetypes are awesome. There's a good discussion of different styles of weird films and how to customize the game for them.

There isn't much in the way of GM advice (although really I suspect the game only needs a strange starting point and then the characters will drive it).

Overall, delivers what the cover implies.

The cover, by the way, has a badass mofo driving a hot rod with a lady samurai, monkey and luchador as passengers. Behind them a huge explosion has destroyed their pursuers.

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18 October 2006

Read-through Review of The Princes' Kingdom by Clinton R Nixon

The Princes' Kingdom is an adaptation of Vincent Baker's Dogs In The Vineyard. It has a very different slant, however. It's designed for play with children. As such, it takes out a lot of the more adult content of Dogs (e.g. sex and theology) and replaces it with a fairy-tale setting.

The characters are young (ages 5-12) princes and princesses in a fantasy kingdom, Islandia. They have been sent out on a boat by the King to travel from island to island in the kingdom, to prove whether they will be fit to rule when they are older.

The island creation section is simple and brings into focus issues of government, law and order, and colonialism or diversity. However, the basic idea is the same as in Dogs - the GM creates a bad situation and the player characters have to decide what's wrong and sort it out.

The text and mechanics are simpler than Dogs, clearly to make it more accessible to younger readers. This doesn't look like it will detract from play one bit. And adults will find this fun too, even if it is designed for play with adults and children (family play, really).

Now I just need to wait for my daughter to be old enough to try it...

Zatoichi (the Beat Takeshi version)

This is a wonderful samurai film. The cinematic style is breathtaking, especially the highly stylized swordfights. The story is a fairly simple revenge tale, but even with so Takeshi plays with our expectations as he introduces characters - nobody is quite who they seem.

It seems like it is Takeshi's homage to Kurosawa (or maybe all samurai genre films).

Recommended to all fans of samurai films and westerns.

Off Road by Sean Murphy

Surprisingly awesome comic. It has a simple setup - the narrator's friend gets a new jeep. They grab another mate and go offroading. The comic just follows them as they get crazier and crazier and do stupider and stupider stuff. The humour is fantastic, I laughed almost from beginning to end.

It looks like the events described are only slightly fictionalised from the real things that happened to inspire them, which I suspect is why it is so cool.

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Hicksville by Dylan Horrocks

Really good, weird and multilayered comic. Deals with issues of parochialism, the comics industry, oddball characters and personal relationships (not things you would normally see all mushed together like this).

I think I need to read it through at least twice more to really get it.
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The Eagle In The Sand by Simon Scarrow

This next episode in Scarrow's series about the two centurions is just as good as the others, although disappointingly short. This time Cato and Macro are sent by Narcissus to be his expendable spies in Judea. They end up caught in various plots involving Romans, Christians and Syrians. All good fun, although perhaps a bit more formulaic than the others.

Concrete: Killer Smile by Paul Chadwick

This is the first Concrete collection I was disappointed with. The story is about one of Concrete's friends being kidnapped and ends up being a fairly uninspired rescue story. There are certainly places where Chadwick is writing about the kind of issues that I really enjoy in these comics, but they are neither as profound nor as interesting as in the other collections I've read.

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Drowning & Falling - Actual Play

We played a short game of Drowning & Falling last week.

It worked fairly well, but not quite as intended. I suspect this may be about evenly due to (1) the idea being funnier to read than play and (2) that the group was not totally invested in the game.

The one notable problem was that challenge creation is a little confusing at first, and people had some trouble with that. It's also not clear whether a single character has to defeat each challenge or if every character except the challenge creator's does (we played the former).

Verdict: better parody of dungeon crawling than Munchkin, but requires more work.

Note: text version available free from the downloads section of the official page linked above.

How Mumbo-jumbo Conquered the World by Francis Wheen

This is a study of the general rise of irrational thinking (especially political and economic thinking) over the past few decades. Wheen has some great examples of this, plenty of passages which made me boggle at the craziness of people.

I was hoping that there would be a little more depth to it, though. There's no real analysis of why this might be happening. Nor is there any suggestions as to what might be done to deal with it.

Quite good, not unmissable.

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The Sun: A Biography by David Whitehouse

Not really a biography of the sun, this is actually a history of solar science. It's a good one, accessible and interesting. Recommended.

Scurvy Dogs by Andrew Boyd & Ryan Yount

A very strange comic about some old fashioned Carribean pirates living in the modern world. Funny. Includes a pirates versus monkeys storyline, too.

26 September 2006

The Devil's Own Luck by David Donachie

This is a genre mash of Napoleonic naval adventure and a mystery novel. Kind of a strange pair, but it works quite well.

The plot concerns a pair of brothers who operate a privateer. One is an ex-navy officer and the other an artist and gentleman about town. The story begins with a battle in which they end up on a British Navy vessel captained by the former brother's old adversary. A murder soon occurs and the other brother is top suspect. So the only thing to do is find out what really happened...

Various twists in the plot and secrets reveal as the story goes on, with some storms and sea battles to spice it up.

It's good stuff. The characters are interesting and fairly well-drawn, and the naval action is too. The mystery is not so compelling (although that might just be my lukewarm interest in that side of the story).

Shock: Actual Play - Lost In A Haze

My regular group played a first game of Shock: last night. After a bit of talking about themes we decided on philip K Dick style dystopian near future weirdness.

The games issues are: authoritarian government, individuality and the pharmaceutical industry.

The shocks are: dream monitoring, food additives and computer gestalt.

Praxis was divided into Combat vs Drugs and Corruption vs Law.

The characters were from all over society, from a government-subsidised secretly subversive artist to a freelance illegal propaganda programmer. By the time we had built the world and characters, we only had time to play through one scene each.

First was Goat, a bowling alley assistant. He had a conflict-free first scene in which he grabbed and concealed a pda from an assassinated businessman when he was supposed to be unblocking the toilets.

Next was Stan Myles, the propaganda hacker. He set up the scene as a shady deal in a cafe, but was interrupted by an alarm indicating that his secure data stores were under attack. He got moving to a computer terminal and tried to save his stuff from the attackers, who were revealed as the BATFP (Bureau of Alchohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Programming). A conflict had both him and the BATFP win, meaning that Myles saved his data but that the area is now physcially surrounded by a police swat team.

Then we went to Horatio Woo, an underground brain surgeon. He was in the middle of installing a brain shunt (allowing the user to avoid mandatory dream-monitoring devices). A mysterious antagonist sabotaged the power in the mobile surgery and a conflict ensued, which I can't quite remember the results of. Except that I'm pretty sure the guy undergoing surgery was okay. The identity of the attacker is still a mystery.

Next stop was Steve Perkins, middle manager at Halptmann Drugs Corp. He had just got home and was sitting down to do some extra work before dinner when he was interrupted by a violent protest. He called the cops, while the protesters tried to get into his apartment. It ended up with some protesters getting aggresive and Perkins sedating them before turning them over to the cops. Who or why they were there is as yet unknown.

And then to our government food additive drone, Richard Higgins. His antagonist, by the way, is the internal audit bureau. Nice. His scene involved an appointment with a dodgy food manufacturer followed by a surprise visit by an audit agent. Higgins tried to get the search stopped on a technicality but failed, inadvertantly letting slip some clues that he's not totally honest.

Finally, we went to Dave the Dope, our secretly subversive artist. We played through his new show's opening. It turned out that someone had sabotaged the promotional materials and advertising so nobody turned up (dates had been messed with). This wasn't so bad, but then the heat got turned up when a bomb was discovered in the factory. A conflict ensued with both sides winning - Dave got a big publicity boost due to the destruction of all his new works in the explosion.

As you can probably guess, we had a lot of fun. Any game that ends with anti-art terrorism is a winner in my book.

The rules worked well, although we had a few hiccups as is usual with a new system. I did have trouble with the book, though. It's very badly organised for looking up stuff in play. A few times we had questions that I am pretty sure are answered in there somewhere, but it was impossible to find them quickly in play. So we just made stuff up and carried on instead. I think I'll need to re-read and make a cheat-sheet before next time, however.

You Don't Have To Be Evil To Work Here But It Helps by Tom Holt

Another episode in Holt's series about the evil magical corporation JWW & Co. This has new characters as the main ones, but generally follows the same formula as the other books in the series. Quite fun.

21 September 2006

In the Name of Rome by Adrian Goldsworthy

A good history, studying the careers of major Roman generals and looking at their influence on the empire and vice versa. Lots of interesting stuff there, and Goldsworthy has a great writing style.

20 September 2006

Interesting Stuff From Gencon

Keith Senkowski (of Bob Goat Games - Conspiracy of Shadows) has made some videos of various seminars at Gencon and posted them up on google video. I've been watching these ones in which Ron Edwards and Vincent Baker discuss DIY game design. Really good stuff there.

Warning: it's seven 8-minute chunks.

There are apparently more there, with various other people, but I will get through the other four and a half of these before checking them out.

Later edit: so now I find that there is this page here with links to all of them and also what is still on the way.

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17 September 2006

Educational Corner: How To Talk Like A Pirate

How To Talk Like A Pirate.

I have nothing to add.
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The Reversed/Engineer Challenge - The Unspeakable Truth

So, I entered this Reversed Engineering challenge. I was mainly inspired by the coolness of the idea: everyone designs a character sheet, then everyone has to design the game that goes with another entrant's sheet.

The idea is pretty cool, so I threw together a sheet quickly and entered. I'm no graphic designer, so my sheet is primitive. I aimed to have the words and shapes on it evocative without pushing the game anywhere in particular. No idea if I succeeded - I haven't seen what the person who got mine did with it yet.

Then the second phase came around, and I got allocated this sheet by Dan Shermond. It's pretty cool, and appears to have the same kind of thinking behind it as my own. This was a relief - if you look at the sheets on the main contest page, some are obviously designed to destroy any would be game designer.

I had trouble coming up with a good, strong, concept for the game. First I threw around ideas for conspiracies in Renaissance Italy, then utopian communities in Renaissance Italy, then utopian communities in general. However, despite some neat ideas, these didn't pan out.

I finally settled on a straight conspiracy game, with the increase in "enlightenment" showing how much the character thinks they know about what is really going on. I let ideas percolate for a few days, then sat down on the last evening I had free before the deadline, and wrote The Unspeakable Truth. It's short - just the bare essence of what is needed for the game. However, it should be a good alpha test version.

I really like the way that your conspiracy theory grows in play and responds to what happens. I also like the endgame conditions - only once you reach the narration of an epilogue do you get to announce whether what the character believed in was true or not. I feel like this kind of gets at a side of conspiracy fiction that is not often dealt with in gaming. Games usually have the gamemaster decide what the conspiracy is and the players get to discover it. This one, in contrast, is more like an exploration of how people might build conspiracy theories based on the random encounters and good or bad luck in their lives. Seems a little closer to things like The Crying of Lot 49 and Fight Club in what it's about.

Now I just have to convince someone to playtest it with me... (Note - any bold readers who give that a try: I will be really interested in hearing how it goes.

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Actual Play: Dogs Visit Maiden Creek

Last Monday, we were again down a player. So we pulled out Dogs again and had another go. The game went a lot better than the first, partly due to rules familiarity but mainly (it seemed) because the town was built to reflect issues that came up in the first game. This is what the text advises you to do. It reminds me that this is pretty much the best game text ever just because it tells you how to play well. Explicitly. And then repeats it a slightly different way. And has a summary at the end of the chapter. It all feeds in to make the game run perfectly.

Anyhow... Maiden Creek. A gold rush town in which the Faithful are now outnumbered by greedy unbelievers. Our Dogs ride in, take in the scene, and meet some Faithful who explain that there's this young woman working for an Unbeliever and ignoring the suit of young men who are interested in marrying her. Pretty terrible sinning right there, as the King of Life sees it.

So how do they deal with it. They have a bit of trouble with drunk unbelievers. The first fracas draws the attention of the Territorial Marshal. He explains that he knows what Dogs are and that they should be careful to stick to their own people and not cause trouble.

Soon one of the Dogs shoots a guy dead after he makes some suggestive comments, she grabs him and he went for his gun.

So the Marshal gets his deputies together and confronts the Dogs. There's a lot of talking back and forward, with the Marshal taking the high ground ("You said you'd cause no trouble and now you shot someone"). Some hard debating (and a big conflict roll) ends up with the Dogs convincing him to let them sort things out amongst the Faithful, after which they will go.

So they do a bit more asking around. Eventually they decide what the obvious solution is - that young woman needs to buckle down, quit her job and marry a nice young Faithful man. She tries to talk them out of judging the situation that way, but fails.

And they ride off into the sunset.

Interesting town. I was very interested that the solution to the town was something that I (and I suspect none of my players) would regard as the best way to sort out a real-world equivalent of this situation. To be honest, I think it's a repellent solution - the girl was simply and independant type who didn't want her life mapped out ahead of her. At one stage, some of the Dogs were considering telling her to move to a different town and see how things go there - this seemed to me like a better way to go.

We all had a great time again too. I was surprised, given the group's tendency to devolve into bad taste, off-colour jokes at the slightest provocation. However, this game taps into something more, and people seem to respond well to it.

Oh well, I'm sure they'll get to return to Maiden Creek later and see how their judgement worked out...

16 September 2006

Giant Lizards From Another Star by Ken McLeod

This is a collection of various short work by McLeod. I read only about half of it - skipping the poetry, reports on SF conventions and a novella that I had already read.

There's a second novella, several short stories and some articles about his fiction (mainly the political thought behind the Fall Revolution novels) and some articles that are just about politics. All that stuff was really good.
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03 September 2006

Snakes On A Plane

So, I went and saw Snakes on a Plane (IMDB).

Without a doubt, this was the best movie that could be made about snakes on a plane. That pretty much sums up my review.

Overall, it's one of those films where you can tell that everyone had a blast making it. The plot is mind-bogglingly stupid, but the jokes (essentially, parody of every disaster movie cliche they can pack in) and the main characters make it worth it.

Jackson is great, as you should expect, but several of the other actors (none of whom I recognised) do just as good a job. In particular, the surfer guy murder witness (he's the snakes' target) and the heroic stewardess.

The snakes mainly just give you jump-out frights, although there's a number of gross out shots (guy bitten on the johnson, woman bitten on the eye, icky snake-poison makeup, etc) but these are not excessive. Just very close.

And... well, I was laughing most of the way through. The snakes are just such a stupid idea that pretty much everything that happens is comical.

More Victims Of The Roach

Last night I played another (half) game of The Shab-al-Hiri Roach.

This game was four of us, two who had done only a small amount of roleplaying before (possibly none in one case).

It ran great, just as much fun as my previous attempt. The only downside, I feel, is that we finished up at the end of the evening, after playing out only three events. It was the only option really - any follow up game would be so far off that we would certainly have forgotten everything. But it also meant that the characters were just beginning to descend into the spiral of madness and destruction that the game encourages. We also only had a couple of roach-possessions, so most of the evil deeds were pure human selfishness.

Highlights were:
- Persuading the president of the Students for Social Justice Club that he should murder the chaplain.
- The successful plot of Anais Smith (a Freudian) to abolish the "superstitious" chaplaincy and replace it with a modern and scientific alternative... a psychoanalyst.
- Bantam Whaley, star quarterback, being tricked into murdering a faculty member in public via the Blackadder "replace the stage knife with a real knife" trick.
- The strange (very, very strange) religious studies professor (still possessed) moving on to the Vatican and founding Opus Dei.
- Pemberton University finally being burnt down due to the ex-librarian dropping a cigarette into spilled brandy in a book storage room.

This game I was also really impressed with the 'you like the character to your left and hate the character to your right' part of character generation. In my first game, these starting feelings swiftly were forgotten. However, last night they drove much of the interaction and conflict between the characters.

Also, it really helps to have people who have experienced academic life there. Interesting note: this game was won by the one actual bona fide academic in the group. Coincidence? I think not!

Note: I am now informed that Make Tea Not War has her own comments on the game.

30 August 2006

Girl Genius 1 by Phil and Kaja Foglio and Brain Snoddy

This one is just great fun. Suffers a bit from being just the first one (by which I mean I really want to get the rest now, to continue the story). The story of Agatha Heterodyne, a student at a crazy steampunk university, who gets drawn into a military takeover of the town. To complicate things, her secret (even to her) history begins to cause her trouble.

The stroy is pretty much beside the point, though. It's funny. The art is good (and also funny) and there's some great jokes in the dialog too. Also, I love the Jagermonsters, they rock.

Girl Genius 1 (Amazon)

You can read many of them at Girl Genius online, too.
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Concrete: Fragile Creature by Paul Chadwick

Another great Concrete story. This one is fairly low key, with Concrete hired to work on a trashy film. He is basically there so they can save special effects money - he throws, carries and destroys things that otherwise would have used the SFX team. It seems to be Chadwick's impression of how Hollywood works (apparently he use to live there and was somewhat involved in the film business). Fun.

Fragile Creature (Amazon)
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A History of Warfare by John Keegan

This is a really good read. Keegan goes back to the stone age and works his way forward, covering the things that (in his opinion) revolutionized war in human history. It's one of those books in which I think he's probably generally right, although perhaps over-emphasizing some things and underplaying others to accord with his general thesis. In any case, it's thought-provoking whether you agree or not.

There's also a rather sad touch in his epilogue (written in 1993) in which he looks forward to a world where war is less and less an option and the United Nations and major powers work to keep things civilised. This seems perhaps further away now than it must of to Keegan then (when the collapse of the Soviet bloc was still recent). Hopefully he's right anyway, even if it happens later than he hoped.

A History of Warfare (Amazon)
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23 August 2006

shock: social science fiction by joshua a. c. newman

Yesterday I received my eagerly awaited copy of shock:. Physically it's a startling orange square, with an extremely nice modernist layout. There's some really cool art too.

The game text is bracketed by a piece of fiction based on a game (with marginalia explaining rules stuff here and there). It's a pretty cool story, especially given the source (this is by Ben Lehman, not Newman).

Then there's a short overview, how to create characters and worlds, how to resolve conflicts, advice on being an antagonist and advice about end a protagonist's story. There's also some appendices, including a selection of media and how they might inspire games of shock:.

The game is intended to allow you to play through stories in which real issues are addressed through the lens of science fiction, and it is very strongly focused on this.

In particular, the first thing that players do is build the world. This involves picking some real issues you want to explore and then some 'shocks' (science fiction elements, basically) that are related to the issues. So if I wanted to run a game about mortality (issue), a shock could be anti-aging drugs or replacement clone bodies. These are then added to a grid, with each protagonist (essentially a player character) sitting in one junction. That is, your protagonist is about a particular issue and shock.

The next thing that defines the world is the praxis scales. These are two opposed pairs of ways of acheiving things. These are analogous to stats in most games, in that every conflict you will pick one of these four methods to get your way. Again, the choices reflect on the world (e.g. hope vs despair in one game and lasers vs missiles in another would indicate quite different styles).

Finally a world is defined by minutia. These are any other future details. They have a small mechanical effect, but they're mainly formalised in order to keep track of them, it seems to me.

Issues, shocks and minutia all get an owner when they are created. The owner gets to decide any details about how things in that area work (i.e. the owner of the shock 'anti-aging drugs' would decide all questions about how the drugs work, where they come from, etc).

Now you have your world sorted out, you can make characters. Everyone takes their position on the shock/issue grid and generates a protagonist for that spot. Characters are defined by how where on each praxis scale their 'fulcrum' is and some features and links. The fulcrum is basically where you fall on the scale - is this or that method easier for you? Features are general traits of the character, and give you more dice in conflicts. Links are your important connections, and can beused to try and recover from lost conflicts. Lastly is the story goal - what you want to happen to your protagonist in this story.

Then you make an antagonist, for the person on your left. This is the character or organisation who creates trouble for that protagonist, and is based on a suggestion from that player. You allocate them fulcrums and some features, and give them some credits (these are spent in conflicts, and thus determine the length of the game).

Then the game begins, with players taking turns setting scenes for their protagonist. After the scene is set, you begin roleplaying and the antagonist tries to push on the protagonist's buttons (as indicated by their issue, shock, links, story goal, etc).

Conflicts are mainly interesting in that the parties to a conflict roll separately and their intentions must be compatible, win or lose. I.e. every conflict, everyone can win, everyone can lose, or some combination in between. I'm not sure how this will affect play - I suspect that it will make things more complicated, in general, which is probably good for this sort of story.

The game design seems really solid. It has nothing that isn't integral to what it does, and looks like it does that well. However, the game also has only miminal explanation of how things go. In fact, "the players take turns to start scenes for their protagonists" is implied only - never actually stated in the game. There are a few aspects like that which could probably do with more elaboration, especially as the book is fairly short as it is.

I want to play this as soon as possible, expect an actual play report in the nearish future.
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20 August 2006

Glasshouse by Charles Stross

The latest Charles Stross novel comes across like a modernised Philip K Dick story.

It deals with a person far in the future who has undergone radical memory excisions, apparently because of a dangerous part of their past. While recovering, they become paranoid and end up signing on for a historical psychology experiment. This involves taking on a role in a simulated 20th/21st century society. Of course, the understanding of the society is imperfect, and the experiment consists of some terrifying social controls to keep everyone in a perfect suburban lifestyle.

It's an interesting setup and there's a lot of fun poking of stuff around at the moment (e.g. reality tv shows).

As our protagonist gets more and more unhappy with the terms of the experiment, they begin poking around and the story shifts to a thriller mode. The concluding section isn't really as much fun as the earlier stuff about identity in a world of editable memories and personality or the bizarre experiment.

Glasshouse (Amazon)
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13 August 2006

The Fourth Bear by Jasper Fforde

The second of the Nursery Crime novels, this one successfully delivers exactly what I expected:

  • Absurdity

  • Puns

  • Jokes about nursery rhyme characters (and a few other fictional creatures as well)

  • Laughs

  • A mystery that ends up revealing a staggeringly stupid crime (involving prize cucumbers, in this case)

In the unexpected area, this book breaks the fourth wall a few times. The characters occasionally seem quite aware of their state and in one case abuse the author for a particularly terrible joke.

Good fun, recommended.

Oh yes, SommeWorld is quite central to this story, so we get to hear a lot about the great World War One theme park that is mentioned in passing in Fforde's other books. Some of the stuff in there is lovely - who could resist the 'Simulated Trenchfoot' attraction?

The Fourth Bear by Jasper Fforde
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The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson

I hadn't really been interested in this book, feeling that the setup was a bit naff. It's an alternate history told via short sections about the same few people reincarnated at vaarious points in the history. Which sounds pretty dumb, really.

However, it's actually good. The structure is just that - a way for Robinson to muse a little on the nature of history, religion, science and humanity. He has some thought-provoking musings in there, too.

Also, I'll save other readers some confusion by mentioning that each character has the same initial every incarnation. So pay attention to the names (I didn't pick up on this until the third section, so I think I missed some characters in the first couple).

The Years of Rice and Salt (Amazon)
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05 August 2006

Top 10 (books 1 and 2) by Alan Moore

These comics deal with the police in a city where everyone has superpowers. It has fairly straightforward superheroes as cops stories. Around these are various plots and vignettes generally poking fun at the whole concept of superheroes.

It's quite reminiscent of a lot of the old 2000AD stories - jokes all the way through and occasionally some serious moments.

The characters are pretty cool too, with lots of fun aspects to each.

Also, it's basically worth reading just for the subplot where one of the cops has to help his mother with an infestation of super-mice in her apartment.

Top 10 #1 (Amazon)
Top 10 #2 (Amazon)
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Relics by Pip Vaughan-Hughes

This is a historical adventure story, about a young monk in thirteenth century England. He gets drawn into some dangerous plots and ends up joining a crew of relic smugglers, and thus on to more adventures with them.

The book appears to be intended as the first in a series, and so spends a fair amount of time introducing characters. Despite this, it's a good novel in its own right - the protagonist's Campbellian hero's journey, in fact.

There's lots of neat historical pieces too - from the plots regarding stolen and faked religious relics, to the hints of conspiracy to come (key characters are exiled Cathars, and there's a Templar and a Byzantine princess in there too).

Overall, a good adventure story and I look forward to the next one.

Relics (Amazon)
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02 August 2006

Four of Robert Asprin's Myth Adventure novels

The specific books were Myth Directions, Hit Or Myth, M.Y.T.H Inc. Link, and Myth-nomers And Im-pervections. I'm not going to treat them seperately, as they're all pretty much alike. Silly comic fantasy, with lots of puns and parody of genre cliches.

Asprin is good, but uneven. Occasionally hilarious, mostly quite fun and sometimes misses the mark. As the series goes on, there's some development of the (initially cardboard) characters. However, there seems no danger that serious issues will be addressed.

various Myth Adventures books (Amazon)


This film is a strange hybrid. Part stalker thriller, part romantic comedy and generally pretty weird. The story revolves around a woman who is arrested for a homicide committed by her evil stalker, and then placed under in-home arrest. Hijinks ensue as she tries to get around the anklet and begins to fall in love with her home arrest minder. And then the stalker begins tracking her down to her apartment, so things end on a darker note than I expected.

Still, odd as it is, it was a fun watch and had some inspired moments. My favorite has to be when the stalker (after she is put in home arrest) visits all the spots he used to spy on her, moping, to an 80s pop song ("she's not here for you, anymore..."*).

If you find that description intriuging, it's probably worth watching.

Cherish (IMDB)
Cherish (Amazon)

*Lyrics quoted represent the general idea, but not the specific song, which I have forgotten.
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31 July 2006

Joyeux Noël

This is a film about the fraternisation that occured between German, British and French soldiers on Christmas in 1914. It tells the story from the point of view of three officers and a few of their men in each force.

It's a nicely constructed film. It does not play down the brutality of the situation, although the section of the front that it concerns is relatively quiet. The quick friendship between the three officers seems a little too neat, but perhaps required to make the film work.

There's a lot of genuinely touching moments, and plenty of humour too (I think my favorite is the cat that lives on the farm that they are fighting over - it gets food from both the French and German lines and during the Christmas 'party' two soldiers argue over who it likes best).

Thoroughly recommended (especially if you have been reading about the battle of Stalingrad, in which the common humanity and decency shown in this film was rather lacking on either side).

Joyeux Noël (IMDB)
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Actual Play: The Mountain Witch Chapter One

After owning it for several months, I finally ran The Mountain Witch today. Technically I guess we started last time, as characters were generated then. But tonight the ronin set off up Fujiyama to slay the witch.

Overall, it was very good. We had a great time and the game did what my reading felt it would.

- The dark fates worked well, giving the players a good way to add to the game and put their own spins on the scenes I was building. For this first session I was mainly pushing this - setting a scene and then picking someone and saying things like "the person in front of you is someone from your past - who?" I expect that later sessions will have everyone volunteering more of this stuff.
- The conflict resolution system is quick and easy.
- The trust mechanics work well. We had one (fairly minor) betrayal and a few cases of aiding occur. The choices to do these reflected the interactions and past of the characters involved, in my opinion. Finally, at the end of the chapter updates, the choices made by each player also seemed to fit very well with the levels of trust shown in the character interactions. I'll be interested to see what happens when people have the chance to betray another ronin to their deaths in later chapters...

Another unexpected win was Kleinert's advice for running the game. Preparing over the weekend I had re-read it all, and felt that it was fairly fluffy advice, with little concrete to use. However, a half hour constructing seeds for scenes and then building on them (and what the players threw into the mix) was plenty. The game ran without a hitch... I remember one spot where I needed a few minutes to construct a good situation, but even then I could fall back on the advice and it was easy.

In this case, one of the ronin had been seduced and abducted by a mysterious woman. The others had lost her trail. One of the others had a tracking ability, and the player decided he knew where they had gone. I rolled with this and described where the captive was being held (a small gathouse/outpost). Then we cut inside and I asked for who was interrogating the captive as he came to. He suggested it was a degenerate and debauched cousin who had been exiled from the family home and this provided a very interesting scene in which the ronin promised to betray the others to their deaths before he faked an escape (slaying many of the guards on the way) just before the others charged in to rescue him.

Definitely a great game. The trust mechanics provide a nice way of investigating the issues of friendship and betrayal in the group. The advice for running and background material is really good (although it may not seem like it when you first read it). Also, the rules were simple enough that I only screwed up once - this may be a personal record for me (I have invariably messed up the rules of even games I wrote, as well as others).

29 July 2006

Badass Space Marines: Art

I have got my artwork for Badass Space Marines today, and am ready to begin layout and maybe a few final tweaks of the game.

If you'd like a sample, here's what will probably become the cover:

Art is by Daniel Gorringe. Wait until you see his aliens...

Two Books About Russia In World War Two

I got lent both these two books after a conversation on the subject.

Russia's War by Richard Overy is a very good overview of the whole of the Soviet war effort with a focus (inevitably) on Stalin and his decisions. It's a very good, moderately scholarly work.

Enemy At The Gates by William Craig is an older book (and thus misses some information that was still secret at the time of writing). It's about the battle of Stalingrad and is based mainly on information from survivors. It's a greet example of this sort of history. I was initially somewhat sceptical of the style, as Craig jumps between little fragments from each participant fairly quickly, but as the book goes on it all comes together as a coherent history. A side note for those who know the film this book inspired: the sniper Zaitsev gets all of three pages or so, but it seems that the main events in the film all basically happened...

Both books are pretty horrifying, as the atrocities committed by both the Russians and Germans in this war were totally inhuman. It's hard to even imagine the kind of hatred that could inspire such things (although I guess once it has started then it is more likely to continue).

Russia's War (Amazon)
Enemy At The Gates (Amazon)

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27 July 2006

The Amazing Screw-on Head, the TV series

Apparently the scifi channel is making a show of Mike Mignola's Screw-on Head. You can watch the pilot online.

The show is fantastic, with Mignola's style captured wonderfully in the animation and hilarious all the way through.

I look forward to more...
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22 July 2006

Looking Back At The Roach

So, we finished off our play of The Shab-al-hiri Roach. My overall feeling remains that this is a wonderful black comedy game.

There are a couple of things that lead to the game working better.
1. Don't hold back - over the top, crazy, absurd plans are what makes the humour work best. Subtlety is a vice.
2. Make sure you describe the intended conflict when you begin each scene. Without this, scenes can easily flounder about. If everyone knows where it is heading, it seems to work much better.

For those who are interested, our version of Pemberton College closed down due to the large number of faculty and student fatalities and (mainly) the debt incurred in the construction of a luxury replica Parthenon for the Classics department. One character went on to become Chancellor, briefly. Another formed a roach-cult in backwoods New England. A third went on to influence certain members of the Third Reich.

Lots of fun. Good for crazy cutting loose play, if you like the black (or splatter) humour that it generates.

The Hidden Fortress

One of the Kurosawa films that I have never managed to see before, I was glad to finally watch it.

It's fairly good, but certainly not his best. The two greedy peasants are used far too much for comic relief, which is not very comical or relieving. Toshiro Mifune is good but he rarely gets the full attention of the camera.

This film is also the one generally regarded as the main inspiration for Star Wars. To that, all I can say is... huh? You can certainly pick some elements that the two films share, but none of them are central elements. And perhaps they are no more than you would expect purely by chance.

The Hidden Fortress (IMDB)
The Hidden Fortress (Amazon)
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20 July 2006

Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge

This is a difficult book to review. On the one hand, it's a good near-future conspiracy thriller. On the other, it's a wonderful exploration of a possible evolution of ubiquitous computing and networking and their effect on society.

Some of the ideas that Vinge presents seem so useful and cool that it's hard to imagine that they won't come true. On top of this, the technology is not too far off what we have now (and certainly a lot of things are currently moving towards what he describes).

In addition to the neat gadgets, there's some really funny stuff about the way that subcultures have developed with the almost total internet penetration of life. My favorite is probably the (mostly play) battle for supremacy between two "belief circles" - these seem part fan club, part cosplay group and part online game. There's also some ideas about schooling and work that are a lot more serious. Both the comic and workaday descriptions of the society are thought-provoking.

Overall, very good. I'm certainly going to read it again, just to really explore the details of social change that Vinge presents here.

In tangentially related news, I recently bought myself a PDA for the first time. It's been quite useful in the ways I expected it would, but Vinge's novel makes me feel like I'm now on the leading edge of a social revolution. A little bit, anyhow.

Rainbows End (Amazon)
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17 July 2006

Good Night, and Good Luck

Interesting film, about Edward Murrow's fight against McCarthy. It comes across as pretty close to the facts, and includes real footage of McCarthy's hearings. A good piece of historical filmmaking there.

Of course, it's also a brutal indictment of the political atmosphere and media in the USA today. The message repeated all through this film is that the media have a responsibility to check political craziness, and that the idea that communists/terrorists are so evil that we should throw away civil liberties and common decency is just as crazy as it in fact is.

It's filmed (nicely) in black and white and Clooney's direction is very slick. One odd note is the music, which is presented as interludes in the film. It's good music, but a bit odd as a way to structure a film.

Good Night, and Good Luck (IMDB)
Good Night, and Good Luck (Amazon)
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A very good film about being in the military - although the characters go through the Desert Shield/Desert Shield operations it's not a war movie in the traditional sense.

Instead it deals with the way people deal with being in the US Marines. I can't really say whether or not it's an accurate portrayal of the lifestyle and people, but it certainly feels like it is.

The acting is superb, with all the characters bringing a lot to the film (even the initially stereotypical-seeming characters).

Jarhead (IMDB)

Jarhead (Amazon)
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14 July 2006

The Lords of the North by Bernard Cornwell

This is number three in Cornwell's series about Alfred the Great. It focuses primarily on the narrator, Uhtred, and his quest for revenge over his own disinheritance and the murder of his foster-father.

It's a great story. Plenty of adventure and excellent characters. Although a lot of the events that occur are supremely unlikely, Cornwell has a way of making them so much part of the flow that I never find myself questioning them.

I really am stunned at how likeable and interesting he has drawn the character of Uhtred, as well. He's a vicious murderer and warrior, and yet his sense of honour and other virtues make you like him regardless. Wonderful stuff.

On top of that, it takes you into the world of tenth century Britain very convincingly. A good escape from the travails of modern life (as long as you are just reading a book about it, anyhow).
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12 July 2006

Something Rotten by Jasper Fforde

And now the fourth and last of the Thursday Next stories. This one involes Next's attempts to have her husband uneradicated (he was killed at the age of two by unscrupulous time travelers earlier in the series), look after Hamlet (who is on leave from his play), and prevent another apocalypse that is being engineered by her old foe Yorrick Kaine. She also ends up leading the Swindon croquet team in the league final, as part of all that other stuff.

This novel is one of the funniest, and really finishes everything up in great style.

Unfortunately, it seems like Fforde plans no more Next stories, but there is a spinoff 'Nursery Crime' series of which the first is good and the second due out soon.

Something Rotten (Amazon)
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11 July 2006

The Well Of Lost Plots by Jasper Fforde

COntinuing my second read through of the Thursday Next series. This one has Next living inside books, helping police the fictional people who live there. Lots of fun stuff, including a minotaur, mispeling vyrus and a conspiracy that threatens the very foundation of reading!

I love the side plot about the terrible, unpublished mystery novel that Next is living in. The characters are all trying to improve the novel so that it will be published instead of recycled, leading to some hilarious hijinks.

The Well of Lost Plots (Amazon)
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Vampire Hunters

A very silly martial arts vampire slayers film set in 17th century China. Lots of fun, somewhat gruesome, and epic vampire and vampire slayers. Great stuff.

Tsui Hark's Vampire Hunters (IMDB)
Tsui Hark's Vampire Hunters (Amazon)
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10 July 2006

The Brothers Grimm (the Terry Gilliam film)

I had not realised this film was by Gilliam, but I grabbed it the moment I saw it was in the video store. Lots of fun, with his take on fairy tales suiting his style perfectly.

The Grimms are played gloriously by Matt Damon and Heath Ledger, cast in the opposite of the roles you would expect (Damon is the gregarious womaniser, Ledger the bookish idealist). This is not any kind of biopic, either. These Grimms are conmen, making up stories of witches to fleece people when they 'save' them from the creatures they invented. However, they end up facing some real fairy tale stuff as the bulk of the story.

The enchanted forest is excellent, with bits and pieces of most of the (real) Grimm's tales sprinkled here and there.

The adventure story is good, fun and fairly exciting. There's plenty of absurdist stuff too, like the over-the-top Italian torturer who ends up allied with the Grimms.

Thoroughly recommended, I'd say this was one of Gilliam's best comic films.

Brothers Grimm (IMBD)
Brothers Grimm (Amazon)

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A Theory Of Fun For Game Design by Raph Koster

I'd heard quite a few good things about this book, so I decided to buy it. It's very informally written, but has (I think) a pretty strong underlying argument.

Koster's interested in making computer games more fun. He takes the perspective that what is enjoyable when playing is the learning aspect of the games. Using this as a starting point, he considers ways that games succeed and fail to be fun. He then goes on to think about how games might be improved in the future.

After just one read, I don't really feel ready to comment on his thesis. I'll need to go over it once or twice more to get my head around the subtleties, I suspect. It's a pretty short book, though, so that's not really going to be a problem.

That said, he definitely raises some very interesting points. Also a few things that are applicable to tabletop roleplaying games as well.

A Theory Of Fun (Amazon)
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06 July 2006

Pure Pwnage

At Pure Pwnage you can download a bunch of shows that some guys made. They're gamer comedy, documentaries about Jeremy "The Pwnerer" and his life as a uber-pro-gamer, poking fun at that culture.

They're a bit patchy, but every episode has some hilarious moments and some of them never let up at all.
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03 July 2006

Lost In A Good Book by Jasper Fforde

The second Thursday Next novel. Doesn't hang together quite as well as The Eyre Affair, mainly because it's setting up a lot of things for the following novels. Still funny, however, and maintains the outrageous madness that I like in Fforde's stuff.
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02 July 2006

An Asian At My Table by Raybon Kan

An interesting, generally funny collection of Kan's writing. It somes from a fairly long period, and is collected by theme rather than in order. Some of the essays deal with big issues of the day that are no longer relevant. This gives it a strange, disjointed feel. That's not really a problem, but is kind of weird.
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Treason's River by Edwin Thomas

The newest edition in the comic adventures of Martin Jerrold is a bit less comic than the others. Thomas has his protagonist dragged along with Aaron Burr's crazy attempt to conquer Mexico, and the comedy here is largely just that of the real events that he observes.

A goof, fun read.
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