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.