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)
Filed as:

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)

Filed as:

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...
Filed as:

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)
Filed as:

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)
Filed as:

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)
Filed as:


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)
Filed as:

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).
Filed as:

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)
Filed as:

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)
Filed as:

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)
Filed as:

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)

Filed as:

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)
Filed as:

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.
Filed as:

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.
Filed as:

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.
Filed as:

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.
Filed as: