28 February 2006

Emperor: The Gates of Rome by Conn Iggulden

Second in this series is better than the first. Again, a lot of the stuff seemed totally over the top and unbelievable, and is apparently fact.

Specifically, Julius Caesar as a young officer was captured by pirates, insisted that they ask a ransom of 50 talents instead of 20 ("I'm more important than that") and told them he would hunt them down and kill them when free. He was ransomed and left in North Africa. He then raised an army (purely by force of personality, presumably), tracked them down, slaughtered them and then put down a rebellion in Greece before the legions sent from Rome even reached the Greek army. Which is a big call to believe in a novel, but he actually did all that.

Still no excuse for the magic healer guy.

Also, there's some great battle scenes (especially those dealing with Spartacus' slave rebellion), which have a lot of detail about the way the legions fought. And they're exciting. The characters are better developed in this second novel, too.

Recommended. I've begun number three, and there's a fourth volume after that to round of the story.
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Sorcerer Character Generation Session

Last night we did the character generation session for Sorcerer. It went well.

The instructions in the book make for great character advice. We threw some good concepts out. Discussion developed them to be cooler. We got some great connections going, such as a common ancestor of two of the characters who led to several nice bits in each of them.

Demon creation was interesting. One of the players in the one-shot went very cautious here, with a demon that is low powered, low danger. We've also got a balls-to-the-wall demon hunter with a powerful parasite demon. Another guy is a fairly straight naive coven member with a passing demon hellhound.

Probably the coolest character concept is the psychologist - his demon is a possessor, accidentally bound during therapy for her 'madness'. Interesting stuff, especially as his kicker includes finding a big pile of dangerous magical stuff in the attic.

25 February 2006

Emperor: The Gates of Rome by Conn Iggulden

Good but flawed fictionalized biography of Julius Caesar. This is just the first volume, dealing with his teenage years.

Overall, it's a good historical adventure yarn.

However, it has a few bits that don't seem to gel. There's a character with magic powers that are purely gratuitous - they do nothing for the story, just make you wonder why they're included. Many of the characters seem to have very modern internal lives.

Worth a look. I'm certainly going to read the next two (that I've been lent, I don't think I'd buy them).
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23 February 2006

The Mountain Witch by Timothy Kleinert

I have been wanting to get my hands on this for a long time and it is mindblowingly cool, as I expected.

The basic deal is that the players are a bunch of ronin who have all gathered to go kill this witch O-Yanma who lives in a castle at the top of Mount Fuji, because there's a big money reward for doing it. You're basically right out of Seven Samurai.

And then you mix in a big dose of Reservoir Dogs.

First part of character generation, everyone gets dealt a secret dark fate card. These all include a good, big reason to betray at least one of the other ronin. They're also very open - each player gets to determine the story behind the fate as the game goes on.

The second big thing is Trust. All the ronin start trusting each other to varying degrees (based on their zodiac signs). Between chapters of the game, players get a chance to slowly grow their Trust for each other (or rapidly reduce it). If another ronin trusts your character, you may elect to use those points to help them in their conflicts. Or. You can use it as a bonus to yourself when your ronin is in conflict with them. Trust ends up being a huge prisoners' dilemma mechanic, as you try to give Trust to those ronin who you think (a) will help you and (b) have no reason to betray you. The brutal simplicity of the mechanic is almost sublime (I'll report on whether it actually is sublime after playing the game).

The game is actually about the ronin and their personal issues. Players may narrate new stuff into the game that is connected to their fate. As the ronin approach the witch, their fates will all be gradually revealed and the tensions in the group will be exacerbated by the Trust mechanic.

On top of all that, it's a fantastic looking book. Nice layout and fabulous spooky watercolours showing ronin and monsters and other evocative scenes (one that is particularly striking shows only a sword plunged into the snowy ground at the bottom of a steep, dark path).

Awesome stuff. Buy it. Play it.
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The Sorcerer's Soul and Sex And Sorcery by Ron Edwards

A few new games in the mail, and now some reviews of them. These two are easy. If you are playing Sorcerer then get them. And get Sorcerer and Sword, too.

Now, if you just have Sorcerer, there's plenty there to play. However, all three supplements are packed with great advice on running the game (probably, to be honest, any game, really). They cover a lot of ground and there's probably a lot in them that will not appeal to any specific person. But the stuff that does apply? That stuff is all golden.

The Sorcerer's Soul deals primarily with Humanity in the game and how to use it, vary it and so on. It also has a bunch of stuff to spice up your demons, rules for angels if you want them, and how to build relationship maps to run grabby games.

Sex And Sorcery deals with issues of sex and gender in games. He has advice on how to deal with sex in a game, talks about female and male story styles, and then has two stories and a game setting to illustrate the ideas.

I suspect that anybody who runs games would get something they could use to lift their play out of these.
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20 February 2006

Purity of Blood by Arturo Perez-Reverte

Also at Unity Books on Friday was the second of the Alatriste books, now in English translation.

It's absolutely great stuff. There is more going on than in the first one, but this doesn't detract from the basic adventure story.

Biggest problem is that I immediately want to read the rest, but they are still not available in English. I'm tempted to learn Spanish just so I don't have to wait so long (of course, that wouldn't work as I am terrible at learning languages).
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19 February 2006

Some Comics

Spaghetti Western by Scott Morse. Great art, weird ideas. Cool.

Hellblazer: Dangerous Habits by Garth Ennis et al. Read because I recently saw it recommended in the Sorcerer inspirations list. Great stuff. Really emotionally moving (and not just horror and gross out, as I found with Azzarello's take on Hellblazer) story about Constantine finding out he has terminal lung cancer. Of course, he uses magic, trickery and bullshitting to survive it in the end, but the journey there is intense.

David Boring by Daniel Clowes. After finishing this I thought it was weird and kinda disturbing and made little sense. The more I thought about it I realised it was actually extremely disturbing and unpleasant and still didn't make much sense. Unlike Ghost World, the characters are neither interesting nor sympathetic. Avoid.
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Tomorrow Now by Bruce Stirling

I have been wanting to read this book since I heard Stirling was writing a non-fiction book on trends of the next fifty years, and saw it in Unity books the other day.

Really good stuff. He's pretty slim on concrete predictions but takes seven ideas or trends that are already beginning and extrapolates how they are likely to pan out over the coming decades. There's a lot of interesting stuff there, as well as a few funny asides. Well worth reading. I feel like I may need to go through it again to digest everything properly, but this won't be a chore.
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16 February 2006

The Carpet Makers by Andreas Eschbach

A good, strange SF novel. It's in the form of a series of loosely connected stories about people in a far future intergalactic empire. The central mystery is that of the carpet makers, a caste of people who spend their lives making one carpet from the hair of their wives and daughters to give to the Emperor. Odd, interesting.
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14 February 2006

Conventions of War by Walter Jon Williams

This is the third and final volume in Williams' "Dread Empire's Fall" trilogy. It's a great conclusion to a great series, and I recommend you read them all. The first two are The Praxis and The Sundering. Basically, you have a multi-species interstellar empire ruled by these immortal aliens who dominated all the others with a rigid legal system (The Praxis). The first book begins as the last of these guys commits suicide (they believed that immortality was a mistake). The empire almost immediately falls into civil war. The book follows two naval officers who end up playing key roles in the good (or "less bad") faction of the war.

It's great stuff. Both the main characters are interesting, flawed and heroic. The society is full of cool details. (My favorite example is that naval combat maneuvers are all totally scripted, and each ship is rated on how well they follow the scripted 'battle'. This creates issues when they have to actually fight.)

This final volume has some moving human drama, brutal war stories and amazingly neat and exciting space battles. Not to mention a whole lot of the heroes struggling against the rigid traditions of the empire.

I'll be putting this down as another inspiration for The Devil & The Deep, as well.

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13 February 2006

Sorcerer - Preparatory One-shot

We were two players (of four) short for Sorcerer character generation tonight, so instead we did a one-shot set in the past of the game we're going to play. The concept was to have the game set in present day Wellington, so this one-shot involved a couple of sorcerers in Wellington in the 1970s.

We had a fair lot of jokes hitting cliches of the time (or our memories of it, anyhow). Mostly bad jokes, oh well.

Concept one was a paranoid public servant (James Creek) looking to use his power to climb the ladder. He was a member of a fairly organised ritual coven with a few sorcerors. His demon was a possessor who had taken the body of the clerk's secretary. His kicker was finding the body of the head of department sliced in two in his car when he went to go to work on a Monday morning.

Concept two was a cafe owner/hippy (Dave) who had come across his demon by accident. It was a demonic coffee machine. Yeah, really. Didn't get much play unfortunately. His kicker was discovering a trunk full of heroin in his flat after the dealer-connected flatmate had gone missing for a few days.

First scene was James dealing with the body in the car. He went to his demon (Stephanie) for help - she convinced him the best thing to do was frame someone else for it (her Desire was corruption). So he dumped the body on his coven rival's driveway.

Second scene was Dave pondering the heroin as there was a knock at the door. It was police doing a drug bust. He gave them some lip (well, he asked that they respect his legal rights) and they responded by beating the crap out of him and then arresting everyone in the house once they found the drugs. Dave had a totally unsuccessful go at summoning a demon to help him escape during the fight.

We then went to James getting to work after dumping the body. One of his workmates happened to be on the bus he ended up catching, causing difficult questions to be asked ("Why are you on this bus when you live way over there? And why is your secretary with you?"). They smoothed it all over with an unlikely story and he went to work, to discover that the (dead) boss had tried to contact him on Friday afternoon about something urgent.

We then went to Dave in the holding cell. He was pretty desparate, so he ended out trying to summon a demon to escape. Bad luck on the rolls meant that he sacrificed both other cell occupants for no success, and lost all his humanity. Oh dear. Dave will probably be getting out of prison just in time for the contemporary story...

Back to James, we played a scene in which he got a low-ranked schmuck from the coven to help him torch his car. This led into Stephanie convincing the schmuck, Stuart, to take part in some degrading sex acts, just for kicks. James was pretty much just going with the flow of what the demon suggested at this point. They then got him to kidnap some cats for them (Stephanie's need was to eat pets). They also heard on the radio news of three murders that day - pretty crazy stuff for Wellington back then.

James went to work the next day, answered a routine inquiry about his murdered boss without letting anything slip, then went home to be attacked by a demon summoned by the guy he framed. A quick, dangerous fight ended with him banishing the demon just before it was going to skewer him. He decided that was enough and got the coven head and Stuart to help him summon a demon sword to get revenge. The first summon roll failed, and so James decided to kill Stuart to get the bonus. This one worked and he breezed all the humanity rolls. He then went and murdered his rival and had Stephanie take the rival's wife as a new host. We ended the session there, deciding that he had probably gone to ground at that stage, and evaded any police investigation.

Overall, a fun session. Brutal stuff. And I have a couple of great villains for the other story. Well, maybe they'll be mentors, but close enough.

Mechanically, the game is harsh. Probably they would have done better if they worked for the roleplaying and cool stuff bonuses whenever they could. Additionally, a few aspects of the mechanics showed that you need to think about what's happening.

Lessons for character generation:
- High starting Will or Stamina to get a high starting Humanity is a damn good idea.
- Pick a starting demon that will be useful in a pinch, because you don't want to be in that pinch and decide to summon one then.
- Demons with just a couple of powers are safer. High power demons are really hard to summon.

Lessons for the game:
- Demons are mean.
- Combat is mean.
- Demons don't have your best interests at heart, don't just do what they say.

Elantris by Brandon Sanderson

A very average fantasy novel. Started well, with some ideas that I thought were so interesting that I finished the book. However, the interesting stuff that I thought was being hinted at never eventuated. Characters were quite cool, but thoroughly modern in their personalities.

I have decided that I no longer want to read fantasy novels in which the people from these fantasy worlds have the same mental life as me. Give me an Elric or Conan instead any day.
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08 February 2006

Badass Space Marines: Another Playtest Done

So, at the WARGS meeting last night I played through another game. This revision had some major changes to how combat works and that had thrown off the GM's Fuel accumulation. Which made the last scene too easy and somewhat anticlimactic. However a quick discussion with the players led to an obvious solution that should hit things about right. They used the second marine squad, including WE3 tribute characters - uplifted combat trained cat and dog - which went well.

I have also worked out how to manage 'one big alien' style creatures in, with basically no change to the creature combat rules.

Those two changes need to go into the next revision and a bit of explanation and clarification, then I'll be ready to open up a public playtest.

I also now have a good logo for Generic Games (thanks Daniel Steadman) and some great art coming along (thanks Daniel Gorringe). It all seems to be coming together for this one.

06 February 2006

Badass Space Marines: Playtest Draft Finished (Almost)

Well, I have just finished and am now printing the almost completed playtestable draft of the game. This is actually the 'run a playtest at tomorrow's WARGS meeting' draft. I'm sure that I can polish it enough on Friday to release it to the small chunk of the world who are interested this weekend.

05 February 2006

Learning the World by Ken Mcleod

A good read, but unsatisfying end. The novel is one of first contact, and is reminiscent of other good first contact stories without being derivative. The human and alien societies are both fascinating and all the characters are interesting.

What it lacks is a strong central conflict... there are plenty of interesting little conflicts during the story but nothing that brings it all together at the end.

Still a good book overall but I can't help but think it could have been a lot better.
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03 February 2006

Beyond Pluto by John Davies

A survey of the state of knowledge regarding solar system objects in the Kuiper belt and that sort of thing. Suffers a bit from the fact that almost nothing is known about them, but interesting overall.
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