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.