30 March 2007

The Mission Song by John Le Carre

A good story, with a well-meaning but somewhat naive protagonist trying his best in a very bad situation in the East Congo.

28 March 2007

The Black Arrow by I J Parker

A samurai solves mysteries! Well, not quite. Sugawara Akitada is a nobleman and courtier in eleventh century Japan, and he solves mysteries. He's trained as a lawyer, but also knows all the other skills of the upper classes.

In this novel (midway in the series) he gets sent with his retainers and family as governor of a frontier northern province (the war with the Ainu people is ongoing at the time). A murder on the day he arrives leads to various sinister plots.

It's a really good read, with lots of interesting historical detail (in this case, about a part of Japanese history I wasn't familiar with) and well-drawn characters.

Thoroughly recommended.

20 March 2007

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold by John Le Carre

I'm going to be reading a bunch of Le Carre novels as research for my Cold War espionage superheroes game. This is the first.

Good. Bleak. Terrifyingly bleak. I guess this was what the height of the Cold War felt like.

17 March 2007

Beast Hunters by Christian and Lisa Griffen

I just pre-ordered this game, and got a pdf download to read while waiting for the printed version to be finished and mailed out.

It's got a few really interesting things going on, mainly that it's a two-player roleplaying game. The intention is that you take turns playing your hunter characters while the other player creates challenges for you. There are rules in there for play with more people, too, but it reads like it wouldn't work so well as with two.

The setting is a post-apocalyptic fantasy world. The big crash left a lot of dangerous magical creatures around, and the player characters are Beast Hunters for a tribal nation - responsible for defending their people from these nasties. The setting details are evocative without being restrictive, throwing you a bunch of peoples and describing various areas. All are given some cool stuff but left open to each game filling in the rest.

Character generation is well done. You build up the character as you invent different stages/areas of their lives - parents, tribe, enemies and finally your beast hunter training. At each stage you give yourself some traits and resources related to that part of your life. You give each a description and category (physical, mental or social) as you go, then allocate numbers to each at the end.

When you begin a session, you set up an adventure. The hunter player (in discussion with the challenger) determines: the goal of the adventure ("slay such and such a beast" or "make peace with an enemy tribe", etc). Then pick the adversity pool and limit. The challenger spends this pool in challenges to make things tough for the hunter, and the limit is how much they can spend at one time. So the hunter decides how long and hard an adventure they want, basically.

Play begins and ends with a salute, and this is explained as a nigh-mandatory feature, likened to a salute or bow at the beginning of a martial arts bout. The idea is that in-game the players should be working hard to challenge each other, just like sparring.

Then you begin roleplaying freely. This continues until the challenger decides that you have reached a point where the obstacle ahead is interesting enough to go into a full challenge, rather than be played through by negotiation. Their limited budget also affects this decision, of course. Hunters can also ask for a challenge if they want one.

Going into a challenge, there is an initial negotiation phase after the stakes are worked out but before the dice come out.

  1. Solution: The challenger describes the situation, and specifies the domain (mental, physical or social). The hunter then describes their plan to deal with the situation. The challenger can then give in (if the plan was really cool), elaborate the situation, or go directly to dice-based conflict resolution.
  2. Elaboration: The challenger asks questions about the plans, points out flaws and asks how the hunter will deal with them. The hunter explains and specifies a trait they are using (this is an advantage later in conflict resolution). The challenger again can give, move to the next stage, or go direct to conflict resolution.
  3. Complication: The challenger throws unexpected complication(s) into the mix, messing up the hunter's plan. The hunter reacts and explains how they will deal with the new situation. The challenger then decides whether to give or move to conflict resolution.
The challenger's decisions are also complicated by the fact that it's more costly in adversity to move to conflict resolution early. On the other hand, the hunter gets more the further you move through the phases. It seems like the intention is that almost all conflicts should move through all three, and moving to conflict resolution is really for when the challenger is stumped for ways to break the hunter's plan. Giving up, in contrast, is a recognition that the hunter has covered everything so well that you think they deserve to beat the challenge.

The dice based conflict resolution system is pretty cool. To start with, the challenger buys stats for the challenge (traits, resources, and damage boxes/hit points). The conflict system involves taking turns, each side picking a maneuver every round. The maneuvers look to offer some interesting tactical options - taking a turn to activate a trait for advantage later versus denying use of a resource to the opponent versus causing damage versus maneuver for advantage versus cause a special side effect to the main stakes. Plenty to do, and it should all give a lot of stuff to make cool narration from - especially taking into account the different fields of conflict. It also looks like it will give a cool build-up of maneuvers and activating traits leading into a climactic flurry of action as the conflict goes on. Awesome.

Character development occurs in two ways.

Firstly, you get reward points for beating challenges that can be spent to build up your normal stats.

Secondly, and more cool, is the reward for beating beasts when you go hunting them. When you first beat a particular type of beast, the Beast Hunter elders give the hunter a magical tattoo using the beast's blood. This gives the beast hunter a special ability or extra always-on bonus, setting them apart from normal people and more as a Buffy-like superhero/defender. The tougher the beast, the more powerful the tattoo.

There's a section for how to be a good hunter player, how to be a good challenger and how to set up adventures. The advice here all looks solid. There's also some special rules for beast hunts and a big section on the various nasty beasts that are out there. They're all interesting - not quite traditional monsters, and they have various tricky special powers for hunters to deal with.

How the game plays is a little difficult for me to imagine from just reading the text, so I'm not exactly sure how my impressions from reading it will map to actual play. Quite possibly the things that are most striking in the text will not be the same as the most striking parts of play. I have a feeling the conflict resolution stuff will be really awesome once you internalize all the options, for example. It just feels like there's more there than you can pick up from a single reading. There's a long example of play at the end, which covers three different challenges and shows a few different ways to play them out.

Lastly, the art, layout and general feel of the book is great. The text is sprinkled with the tribal-style beast tattoos and primitivist style pictures of the world of the beast hunters. The titles are in a matching style font, but the text is clean, bold and very readable in the pdf.

Supernatural (series one)

I just finished working my way through this series on dvd.

Boy howdy, it's good!

The show follows a couple of brothers who are monster hunters. Their dad has gone missing chasing some creature and the wayward brother who left home to get away from that life is pulled back in.

The show starts as a monster of the week style, but as the series goes on a fairly compelling plot is built up. It's fairly uncompromising horror, too. The stuff they fight is creepy, nasty and often gory. The writers don't go as crazy as usual when working with existing stories and traditions, which is nice.

What makes it work is the very, very good actors playing the brothers and excellent scriptwriting. The direction is generally good, hand-held camera/horror movie style. There's plenty of nods to horror classics all through the series, as well.

The relationship between the brothers (and their absent father's influence) is convincing and interesting. A lot of the dynamic is built around the fact that the younger one, Sam, left to go to college instead of continuing the family tradition of hunting monsters, while Dean stayed on helping their father. They do a lot with this, not all of it obvious.

At the end, they have perhaps the most intense series-end cliffhanger ever. Lucky I didn't watch it when it first played, as the wait to see what happened next would have been very painful.

14 March 2007

A Rare Political Post

No Right Turn pointed out this online petition to urge some serious action on climate change. Check it out, preferably sign it too.

The Clan Corporate by Charles Stross

Number 3 in the 'Hidden Family' series, this one is good but unsatisfying. It feels like the first half of the next novel in the series, rather than a standalone story.

Game Chef Time!

This weekend is the beginning of Game Chef 2007.

This year the contest is longer (two weeks and an extra weekend rather than one and an extra), but otherwise looks like it will be the same madness as usual.

Well worth trying if you have any interest in designing a game at all.

Proven Guilty by Jim Butcher

This brings me up to date with all the Dresden Files novels that have been published so far.

I really enjoyed this one, although it changes the formula a bit. Dresden ends up spending more time dealing with the fallout of the last few books than solving new mysteries. However, I found the building up of the varies crises and repercussions of what has gone before were dealt with in a really interesting way.

08 March 2007

The Android's Dream by John Scalzi

Somewhat different to Scalzi's other novels that I've read (Old Man's War and The Ghost Brigades), this one has more humour and less action. It's also a little more coherent and paced better, a pretty natural result of his writing improving, I guess.

It's your typical science fiction diplomatic/espionage thriller about averting an interstellar war using a sheep. The hero is a guy who has the job of giving bad news to aliens for Earth's State Department.

I can't say any more without spoiling the story, so instead I'll just advise everyone to go read it.

07 March 2007

Light Dragoons by Allan Mallinson

This is not a further Matthew Hervey novel but a history of the British Light Dragoons Regiment (really more about it's antecedents, as it was formed in 1992).

It's an entertaining read, following the various postings and actions of the units concerned from the earliest forerunners in the 17th century. Anecdotes, regimental legends and the letters and journals of soldiers are scattered through as well.

The Final Committee for the Exploration of Mysteries Session

We finished off our expedition in this week's session.

High points included:
  • The discovery that the schwimwagen was in fact a flugschwimwagen (it had a deployable hot air balloon).
  • Dinosaurs.
  • Zombie dinosaurs.
  • Ancient engravings of a sordid nature being set aside for detailed study, later, alone.
  • People falling into traps with long slides leading to (variously) a tyrannosaurus pit, the death-cult's prison and the temple's ritual chamber.
  • Disguising ourselves as death cultists to infiltrate the big ritual.
  • Upon being challenged by a Nazi (they were working with the death cult), the response "You're damn right I'm not supposed to be here!*" followed by a punch in the face.
  • A huge fight in the temple as the crystal skull manifested a body as the avatar of their god (or something).
  • The triumphant ripping the skull off the body to stop the ritual, and success!
  • "Fluffy", the dilettante, achieved his heart's desire - a perfect cup of tea. I don't recall the details of how the crystal skull enabled that. Stef, can you fill us in?
Once again, we had a great time.

There are still some flaws with the game, which I expect will be ironed out as playtesting and revision continues. The thing that struck us most strongly this time is that it is really too easy. Even the toughest hazards were able to be beaten if you make an effort to use all the resources at your disposal (and this will be even more true playing the game a second time, and knowing what sort of descriptors you can choose for maximum effectiveness). This also meant that our final scene, although epic and funny, did seem a little anticlimactic - I don't think anyone had used more than half their rolled dice before we beat the hazard.

* Or words to that effect, anyhow.

03 March 2007

Blood Rites by Jim Butcher

I've now caught up to the point of Dead Beat, the first of these I read. Just like the last couple in the series, this one builds more into Dresden's world. You also learn a lot more about his past, in the course of his solving this mystery. More good stuff.