31 January 2007

Fool Moon by Jim Butcher

This is the second Dresden Files novel. As you might guess from the title, this one involves Harry dealing with werewolves (although I was surprised how many he managed to fit in).

All the novels have suffered from a slow start and some excessive explanation of Dresden's world at the beginning, and this one is perhaps worse than the other two I've read. This one is a bit more action-oriented and less character focused than the others, as well.

The Pirates! In An Adventure With Whaling by Gideon Defoe

As those of you who have read the first of Defoe's pirate books might guess, this is very silly. This time the Pirate Captain and his crew accidentally buy a very expensive new ship and are forced to hunt down Moby Dick for the bounty that Ahab has placed on the whale's head.

But really, it's all just an excuse to make lots of jokes about the school-boyish pirates, pop culture, Melville's great novel and so on.

Lots of fun.

While checking on the spelling of his name, I discovered that a third Pirates book is now out, The Pirates! In An Adventure With Communists. Golly!

28 January 2007

Playtest Report: The Committee for Exploration of Mysteries by Eric J Boyd

The regular group ran this last week. We're planning three sessions, so number one was brainstorming, character generation and the first part of the journey.

We placed the Committee in London, and pretty quickly decided that we wanted to fight a lot of Nazis and find the source of the Amazon. There should also be dinosaurs.

Our list of hazard ideas went smoothly. I was going to type it up but apparently it got left at the game venue - Stef, try and rescue it for next session!

We then decided that the main points on the journey would be Nazi Germany, the Amazon, and a lost city at the source of the Amazon. The secret is 'a crystal skull of doom'.

Next we made up characters. Our cast were (with the attributes given by other players):
  • Sinister Poe, gentleman thief. Daring high, good all-rounder. People refuse to gamble with him, he's good with a knife, he has a gammy knee and a trained cat called Twinkles. His desire is to gain eternal youth.
  • Donald "Fluffy" Dermont, socialite. Charisma high. He is chased by creditors, has demanding aunts, is a crack shot with his father's Webley and is an amateur pilot. His desire is for a good cup of tea.
  • Reginald Sutcliffe, county cricketer. Charisma high. He is stalked by a sports reporter, secretly chases the dragon, has poodle boots (game group in-"joke") and is reputed to have bribed umpires. His desire is to open for England at Lords.
  • Washington Smythe, ex-Marine, smuggler, trapper. Daring high. Once worked as a bearded lady, never harms a woman, was an artillery spotter and has torn enemie's throats out with his teeth (we don't know how many). His desire is to retire and never be called on again.
  • Dr Matthew Abernathy, Professor of Archaeology. Genius high. He carries a jar of beetles, smokes disgusting cigars, is quite the ladies' man and his tenure is under threat. His desire is to gain a peerage and thus his sweetheart's hand in marriage.
We then set off for Germany, to discover clues as to the whereabouts of the crystal skull and steal a prototype schwimwagen in order to drive to the Amazon. The first hazards where minor - passport troubles, Twinkles going missing, an aunt inviting Fluffy to dinner with Goebbels. Then things got going with an assassination attempt, Smythe stealing the schwimwagen, a bomb, Abernathy dealing with a suspicious Nazi librarian and a ludicrous chase scene as we attempted to escape Berlin with apparently the entire army in pursuit.

Our cliffhanger happened as a Nazi superhuman, almost defeated, transformed into multiple copies of herself as we fought on the schwimwagen, driving hell-for-leather towards the sea.

As that short summary implies, the action was great and often ludicrous.

I'll go into some details of the rules now, and how they worked.

Character generation was great fun, especially adding traits to the other characters. However our group - never the most serious - did add a few that were silly or disadvantageous. Perhaps an instruction to aim for things that are good or bad situationally would be useful? Or maybe it is just us. The fact that the mission is brainstormed first also adds something - you know the sorts of things you are to face and can bear that in mind.

The way scenes work is that the person whose turn it is explains how the group got from the last scene to where they are now, and what that is. They state what they want to do next and then their opposition player (picked randomly at the session start) thinks up some opposition for them. Play goes on until it comes to a conflict. Then dice are rolled, so that the opposition total is known. A three-minute timer is started (in theory a sand-type eggtimer, but we only had an electronic one). The protagonist pushes forward a die, adding it to their total and narrating what they did. Then the opposition player narrates a complication. This is repeated until the total is reached or the timer runs out.

This use of the time limit adds an urgency to the narration that worked really well. All the narration came out fast and snappy, and when your mind blanks briefly it makes it all the more exciting. The tension added is perfect for this pulpy Indiana Jones style game.

There's some more complex rules for group resolution, unexpected hazards and end of session cliffhangers, but the essence is the same and they work just as well.

The other major piece of the rules that I have not yet mentioned is the acclaim economy. Acclaim points are your score and also allow you to be better in play (or hinder the others). This is fine, but I found there were too many things to keep track of about Acclaim. For example, you invest points in ideas on the log sheets (our Berlin sheet has 'Death cult', 'Schwimwagen', 'superhuman', 'Nazis', and 'Parking warden'). If people reuse these concepts in their narration, both of you get Acclaim (but there's a choice of how to gain it each time this happens). You gain or lose Acclaim from meeting or failing challenges. You gain Acclaim when two other players laugh at your narration or raise a glass to you.

I found that this often got left out or slowed the pace of the game. I can see why the rules are all there, but I feel like a streamlined version would help the game move faster. Personally, my preference would be to remove the Acclaim related to ideas on the log. Maybe players could reroll one of their dice if they narrate in one of the listed ideas? That's a little less significant, but probably easier to do (and do fast) in play. The log then becomes an ideas sheet that gives you some advantage when ideas are reused (which seems to be the objective) rather than something to use tactically (yes, Daniel, I mean you and your 'Nazis' there).

Despite those small issues, this is a great game. Look out for the published version (I'm not sure what the timescale is going to be, of course).

Kapcon 16

My experiences at Kapcon this year was a little truncated - I only got to the first two sessions each day, and skipped the live game. I found that the lack of tiredness made up for the missed gaming - this was the first con that I came out of feeling fine (as opposed to having my voice gone and so tired I need Monday to recover).

Session one - Full Light, Full Steam. This game went well, but not fantastic. I tried to use a few of the rules that probably should have been dropped for a convention one-off. A couple of players didn't like the way I set up the first scene, as it seemed to block certain options (a fair point, in retrospect). However, once the action kicked off, we got into it and everything went well. The dice system is fantastic (although everyone seems to take a while to get their head around it). There was little use of thematic batteries in checks, but I think this was mainly because the group was moving so fast. Nobody stopped to try and pull more advantage out, they just kept going (to their disadvantage, a couple of times).

Session two - The Gilman House. Zak was running a lot of old scenario contest entries, and this was a Call of Cthulhu one. It was nice to be in one of Zak's games (it seems like years since last time I played one). The scenario was good, although a couple of things bothered me. Firstly, my character had basically zero interest in or connection to the mystery (and I think a couple of the others were similar), which meant that I spent a lot of time goofing around until the monsters actually started appearing. Secondly, the scenario seemed to rely on the player characters doing one or another magic ritual. The only two characters who had mythos/occult background also had extremely low POW score. When it came to the crunch, then, they kept failing their rolls and things went very badly. The group had fun, though, and Zak kept things moving all through. It was, however, needlessly mean to have the two of us who survived arrested for the murder of the others.

Session four - Prime Time Adventures "Ward X." Hix hosted this PTA session, with me and two other players. We had time to develop a show, play one episode, and plan the series that would have been. Hix did a great job guiding the brainstorming, especially as it seemed like the group had quite divergent TV tastes. Narrowing down to something we all liked took some work, but we ended up with a supernatural forensic medical drama. We played through an episode in which a woman was suddenly struck blind. It turned out, after all the investigation, to have been ghostly brain parasites combined with a miscast magical spell. The patient survived with only some recurring invisibility(!). I loved this one section where, after successful brain surgery to remove the parasites, we decided that we needed to reintroduce them before lifting the spell on the patient to save her. The scene between the new doctor on the team and her friend the neurosurgeon was fantastic. He was completely sceptical and was only won over grudgingly. Great stuff from Helen and Hix that scene. I am sad we can't play the rest of that series (or watch the show).

Session five - InSpectres: Helsinki. I ran a game of InSpectres next. It was a great group and we rocked. We picked Helsinki as a place mainly because of someone's story about how students there dress for pub crawls. The franchise dealt with a family home demonic infestation (old graveyard, demonic transmission via phone line); a dimensional rift (mad scientist, inter-dimensional war prevented by homoerotic wrestling); and finally a mysterious smell in a restaurant (the Dark Lord, Satan, was turning people into demonic chickens via haircare products).

A good Kapcon. Huzzah for the organisers and all the people who played games with me. You were great.

23 January 2007

The Diamond Frontier by John Wilcox

Another Simon Fonthill novel, sending him and Jenkins back to South Africa to help a woman they befriended in the Zulu War. This one deals with a British war against another African nation and tensions with the Afrikaaners.

Still good adventure stuff, with a nicely cynical thread in the way the main characters think of Britain's military and general imperial project.

Storm Front by Jim Butcher

First of the Dresden Files novels, of which I read Dead Beat a little while ago.

A bit more raw, as you might expect from an earlier novel. Still fun and exciting.

Also better in that it does not include the baggage of six other novels I hadn't read yet.

Curry by Lizzie Collingham

A history of Indian cuisine, focusing on the way that the rest of the world influenced its development at some points, and how it influenced the rest of the world at others. The book is surprisingly deep, covering a lot more history than the concept suggests.

Very interesting. She also includes some recipes, all of which are interesting and many of which look really good as well.

10 January 2007

The Road To Kandahar by John Wilcox

Second novel in the Fonthill series, and it sees him blackmailed into remaining in the army (by the one senior officer who likes him, no less) and sent to Afghanistan to gather intelligence on the forces arrayed against the British there.

It is good. Nice to be reading this while preparing to run Full Light, Full Steam, too, as the issues that both works address are similar.

09 January 2007

Actual Play Report: Full Light, Full Steam - A Cruise To Mars

This weeks' game was a run through of a Full Light, Full Steam situation that I had built to run at Kapcon in two weeks. This meant the objective was mainly to confirm that I knew the system well enough to run it and to check how it played with people new to the system.

I didn't end up giving much time for situation engineering. The game saved me here, as the instructions gave plenty of ways to build up from your inspirations (in this case, just the thematic batteries of the characters) to an engaging situation. I was helped by the author's description of doing the same thing himself which he posted on the website, too. I was also somewhat restricted by the short game description that I had already submitted to the convention organisers. This had been intentionally brief, of course, but did tie me to Mars and set up expectations for natives, pirates, anarchists and foreign agents to be involved. Including all these elements was very easy.

I'm very pleased with the situation engineering system. In particular, the 'complicating cogs' and 'elaborating cogs' parts. To start with, you list inspirations - things that you believe the players are interested in having the game include. Then you come up with three key conflicts based on these inspirations. For each conflict you then list simple cogs - an antagonist, a victim, a setting and two more of any sort.

You then complicate the cogs by picking pairs from different conflicts and combining them, e.g. the victim in conflict 1 might live in the town that is the setting of conflict 2, or be the antagonist of conflict 3. This process of complication really helped the half-formed ideas for the situation come alive. In particular, when you complicate simple character ideas, the two sides that the character has subsequently can be a lot of fun to think about and play.

The next step is to engage the player characters. Here you allocate one complicated cog to each of them and link them directly. The links might be thematic, historical or social relationships. This helps tie the player characters more firmly into the situation and appeared to work well in play (although I did drop the ball on at least one character finding out about their link, mainly due to running out of time).

The last piece is elaborating the cogs. Basically this involves putting some abilities and thematic batteries down for the non-player characters and elaborating the effects of settings and props. Settings and props can give certain kinds of bonuses and penalties, decided at this time, and possible complications that may occur are listed. This is quite fun and the effort expended in little things (like deciding a Martian canyon had ancient native monuments, for example) added a lot to play.

That gave me a good setting, so I'll move on to our play. Explaining the rules was quick and easy, although the spoils scrips caused some confusion (who passes the scrip, who signs it, etc). I'll have to explain this more carefully in a convention setting, but once people got the hang of it things went fine. The setting has lots of neat grabby elements, and everyone quickly got into that side of things. I'll run through the play here, but it's intentionally vague as some of my readers may end up playing this quite soon.

The first scene, mainly at the governor's mansion, had the crew trying to gather information about their mission and being rebuffed by the governor who claimed nothing unusual was going on. The discovered that others in town didn't agree and that the problems they had been sent to fix were real. This scene went on longer than it should have, I think, and I should have pushed more information at the players. We pretty much missed one of the three conflicts entirely, and this scene was where it should have been played out. This might be a game, like Dogs In The Vineyard, in which it's a better idea to instantly reveal the mysteries and let the player characters sort them out, rather than focus on investigation.

Action was spurred on when the Commander sent the landing skiff back to his ship to get a detachment of marines. The skiff spotted something suspicious in the desert, investigated, and the survivors made it to the colony. Our heroes set out and, in an epic battle, defeated the bad guys. Huzzah!

The conflict resolution system works very well - nice and elegant. The system of taking voluntary demotions to charge your thematic batteries for later is fantastic in play. The non-player character equivalent is even more fun (and not, I think, mentioned in my review after reading the game the first time). The gamemaster can give a non-player character promotions by declaring what their thematic battery is. The other players can then force demotions on that character later, when appropriate. This also was fun in play.

Overall, a fun session. As mentioned above, we went over time and didn't actually resolve all three conflicts. I regard that as a success - I always prefer to have too much situation to risking not enough. I'll probably drop a few things for a convention setting. One of my players suggested that spoils scrips be used just for scene control, and ignore marking spoils gained (your experience points, basically). Aside from that, most of the issues were associated with it being the first time.

As a last comment, I may take my own game Devil & the Deep off the backburner now. I think that Full Light, Full Steam pretty much gives me the game I was trying to build there.

04 January 2007

Britain in the Middle Ages by Francis Pryor

A nice, somewhat idiosyncratic, history book. The author focuses on the things that he personally is most interested in, which gives a different take than a typical book about the middle ages. He talks a lot about daily life and the things we know about that, in particular. On top of that, his style is very good.

His general theme, to the extent that the book has one, is mainly that the middle ages weren't quite as barbaric as they are generally made out to be, and I think he argues that case pretty well.

He also has a fair bit to say, in asides, about the conduct of archaeology in Britain today. This is not something I really care much about, but had some interesting tidbits in there.

01 January 2007

Dead Beat by Jim Butcher

I have heard a few good things about this series, The Dresden Files, especially with a scifi channel series based on them coming up. So I picked up this one the other day.

The books deal with Harry Dresden, a wizard and sort of private investigator in Chicago. It's a lot of fun, with a good action packed story and some interesting characters. At first I was a little sceptical, as some of the introductory chapters are a little cutesy and filled to the brim with people and baggage from the previous books in the series (this is number seven or so). All this becomes pretty much irrelevant once the action starts, as it's a good mystery and lots of exciting magical fight scenes.

Recommended. And I shall be seeking out the rest of the series, too.

The Horns of the Buffalo by John Wilcox

Another series of good historical military adventures! Huzzah!

This series is about one Simon Fonthill, an infantry officer . It's set in the 1870s and this first novel has him drawn into the Zulu war, specifically the battle of Rorke's Drift.

It's a good story, and the fact that the period is mid/late Victorian rather than Napoleonic is a nice change.

An Act of Courage by Allan Mallinson

The next, and currently last of, the Hervey books. Very good.