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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