31 May 2007

Conan: The God in the Bowl by Kurt Busiek & Cary Nord

This is the second of Busiek's adaptations of Conan as a graphic novel. It didn't have the pacing of the first volume, but the second half was a damn good story. The first half sets it up, but isn't so punchy.

B. P. R. D. - The Universal Machine by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi, Guy Davs

Probably my favorite of the BPRD books so far, this one is light on the occult action and heavy on studying what makes the characters tick.

Dictionary of Mu by Judd Karlman

This is a supplement for Ron Edwards' Sorceror.

It's a blood-soaked, post-apocalyptic fantasy setting in which the demons can be anything that has died or been forgotten. The bulk of the supplement is a dictionary of words that are important in the world, with a short rules section at the end. The rules cover what humanity is in the setting, some special rules for certain situations (e.g. falling in love, vendettas) which seem like they would add a little extra structure to the character interactions in the game, a bit more zing too.

Another element that I like is that if a player spends experience points or summons a demon, they must write up a new definition about it and add this to the dictionary. The supplement is really just a framework to build your game from.

The book is really evocative, with strange fonts, scrawled marginalia and strange doodles on the edges of the pages.

One of the problems I have with Sorceror is that it leaves pretty much all the setting creation to you. These days, I don't really have the time to prepare a setting from scratch, so I've only played it once, for a short run game. After reading Dictionary of Mu I am once again inspired - this seems to give me enough to build off, without being very restrictive.

A Game of Bones by David Donachie

Another episode in the Ludlow privateersmen mysteries.

This novel is less concerned with the mystery side of the series, and more on the naval action. Returning to England after some time in the Americas, they are just in time for the Spithead and Nore mutinies. Harry gets involved with these and ends up investigating the possibility of Jacobin provocateurs amongst the sailors.

However, the main part of the story is a duel with a French privateer that he came across on the way home. There's a lot of good action in the engagements.

There's some good character stuff too, mainly focused on Harry recovering from the events of the previous novel. As always, Donachie's dialog is good and often hilarious (especially when James Ludlow, a rather sarcastic fellow, decides to deflate someone he dislikes).

26 May 2007

Rocket Science by Jay Lake

A fun, odd story set in post-World War 2 Kansas. The narrator's friend brings home a stolen flying saucer as a war souvenir, and chaos erupts due to an unlikely number of spies in the town.

21 May 2007

Visionary In Residence by Bruce Sterling

Although I'm not much of a fan of short stories, I am a fan of Mr Sterling's, so I gave this collection a read. Some good ones, some not so good, all of them were interesting.

The ones that I enjoyed most were those that were science fiction (or closely related to it, like his 'architectural fiction' and 'design fiction' pieces). There's also some good historical stories in there.

19 May 2007

The Furies of Calderon by Jim Butcher

After enjoying the Dresden Files books so much, I was expecting more from Butcher's more traditional fantasy series. This first one didn't deliver.

The characters are pretty shallow and cliched, and the story wasn't too good. It also suffered from a lot of plot driven by people not mentioning important things to each other and/or just happening to turn up in the right place.

The world is interesting, with some nifty magic powers and cultures. It feels like this is where the work went in, and I'd rather have seen this effort go into the characterization, which is the main strength of the Dresden Files books.

15 May 2007

The Infected (ashcan edition) by Eric Provost

Another new purchase, this is a beta test version of the game. It's designed to replicate films about zombies (and things kind of like zombies). Essentially, any horror film in which people turn into monsters.

It's an easy sell for me as it's designed for zero-prep, one-shot play. It's a short read, with no excess. Just the rules and play advice, with a few pictures in there. Some are evocative although a few (apparently from an older, different version) seem a little out of place.

Play is pretty simple. Players get given a card which randomly sets your character's motivation - they're pretty broad things, like "family" and "justice." Characters are then generated, by picking a goal related to your motivation and coming up with a name and background. Player characters don't really have any stats - just some tokens that count how far you are off achieving your goal.

The GM gets to design the monsters at this stage - their origin, purpose, how they infect people, what the transformation is like, etc.

There are also six NPC cards that go in the center of the table. They start blank, and get names as they appear in play. The NPCs start giving players a big bonus and the GM a terrible one, but as they help people this reverses. They also can become infected or monsters, as play goes on.

The GM gets a cup with some infected dice in it, which are used to have monsters attack people.

Then everyone takes turns setting up scenes. It looks like players will generally want to set scenes to allow them to reach their own goal, while the GM will want to generally cause chaos and infect the NPCs that people care most about.

Play occurs in three reels (or acts), subsequent ones starting when the GM runs out of dice. Each reel, they get a refresh of more dice. This will put a strong incentive to work hard to get your goal quickly, as it seems like it will be easy to run out of time.

The NPCs also have a nasty sting... you can get them to help you do stuff, for a big bonus. However, if you screw up then the NPCs can get closer to being a monster and thus turning on you. Plus the GM can spend infected dice to have infected or monstrous NPCs hinder you.

And you can get infected too. If a PC gets infected dice, they can use them any roll they want... but this involves letting the infection bring out some inhumanity in you. And you might end up infecting the others too.

Together, this all looks like it will lead to a tense, fun, zombie (or zombie equivalent) game with some nice inter-group conflict over the goals and NPCs.

I cannot wait to play this one, it looks great.

Young Bloods by Simon Scarrow

I really enjoyed Scarrow's centurion novels, but I'd been a little chary of this one - a fictionalised biography of Napoleon and Wellington. I ended up getting it due to being in somewhat of a book drought, and it turns out my fears of it being a little dry were unfounded.

As far as I know, he sticks pretty close to their actual lives. He does admit to making up a few scenes just to make his story better (including an amusing meeting between them when Wellington spent a year at a French military college). There's also a number of scenes that could only have played out as described with the knowledge of what is still to come in both their lives.

Still, it has it's exciting moments and I was disappointed when I got to the end. Hopefully volume two will not be far off (and the next one about the centurions too).

Dr Quantum and the Illuminati

We played a game of Spirit of the Century last night. It went well, and I can see why the game has such a reputation.

My preparation comprised basically just noting down a few random ideas for a plot inspired by some of the character aspects, and this was plenty. In fact, I had to cut the final scenes short as we were in danger of running over time.

No more detailed issues came up - it's clear that the first few sessions will be slower, as people get a handle on how aspects work and what their stunts do. I expect that each following one will go notably smoother.

Black Jade by David Zindell

So I finished reading the third of these books, also enjoyed this one a lot. Now I just have to wait for number four to come out.

09 May 2007

My Tank Is Fight! by Zack Parsons

This is a book about the craziest inventions that didn't quite happen in the Second World War. It's based on a series of columns Parsons' wrote at Something Awful a year or three ago.

It's a fun read, with a good selection of crazy ideas. For each one, there are a few pictures (including some nice colour plates), a description of the actual history, a discussion of the technical aspects and how well it might have worked, and finally a hypothetical history if the invention had gone ahead and fictional vignette about that.

Parsons' writing is good, although he often drops into an over the top style that will be familiar to Something Awful readers. In some places, this seems inappropriate to the material. The fictional vignettes are also somewhat redundant - I feel like more attention to the analysis of the inventions and hypothetical histories would have been more rewarding to read.

All that said, overall it's great fun - covering everything from Nazi nukes to personal backpack helicopters and 2000 ton tanks.

07 May 2007

Actual Play - Beast Hunters

So, I sat down to play Beast Hunters last night. Overall, not a successful game, unfortunately. This was largely a matter of preferences, rather than the game failing to deliver.

We both made up hunters, and had a good time with that. The allocation of traits and resources as you make up your life story worked well and made interesting characters. We also elected to be from the same tribe, and that led to some nice touches (one hunter was the chief's granddaughter, the other from a line who were once tribal chiefs but now impoverished).

Once play began, however, it didn't go so well. Our challenges quickly got bogged down in less than stellar narration and rather too much dice rolling. The dice rolling in particular was a problem for the other player (who doesn't like things to be too complex or involve much arithmetic). The lack of interesting narration was because of two things - on the one hand, we'd had a long tiring day. On the other, the setting didn't really spark the interest of my partner.

Contributing to this was the fact that you have to go through quite a few conflict turns to win. Our first conflicts revolved around a family argument and a vision quest, with the hunter beset by spirits. Both of these were fine at first, but we began running out of ideas long before the conflict was over. I don't think this was just our lack of inspiration either - my preference would be for conflicts to be significantly accelerated. If I were to play again, I might halve the advantage cost of strikes, just to move things along faster.

We found that each conflict began with a fairly boring turn or two of both sides activating traits, then a few maneuvers, then a low level strike, a few more maneuvers, another strike, etc. Actually finishing the conflict off turned out to take a lot longer than I expected, and felt rather drawn out to me. This was particularly the case with the conflict that was rather further from the combat metaphor - the vision quest.

The idea here was that the hunter needed to get guidance to track down the beast they were to hunt, while hostile spirits and the environment tried to confuse her. However, after a few rounds, both of us found that we had no more material to keep the conflict interesting.

As challenger, it also broke me out of the swing of things a bit to have to make a numerical offer in response to each maneuver. My natural inclination was to just roll the dice and see if it worked, instead.

There's also a lot to keep track of, so the first go was quite difficult in that sense. Particularly in a conflict, you need to make sure you know several different numbers that can change each action.

In the end, we decided to stop before completing the adventure, as it just wasn't working out.

So. Overall? None of that should be taken as criticism of the game, itself. This was mainly a case of 'not the right game for us, then'. I'd been keen to try it, even though my partner had expressed some reservations about the game, and it was for my benefit we played it. And, it turned out to not be her sort of thing. I also didn't enjoy it as much as expected, mainly due to the issue of conflict length mentioned above.

Lord of Lies by David Zindell

Re-read the second in Zindell's fantasy series. Also improved this time around.

I also had a look for the fourth book the other day, but no sign yet. I was hoping that I'd get to read it as soon as I finish #3.

04 May 2007

The Lightstone by David Zindell

Re-reading this novel, I was reminded how good fantasy can be. Despite being an 850 page monolith, Zindell's wordiness never annoys me. He spends his time pondering interesting, deep stuff. Not just description for its own sake.

And, boy howdy, he puts his protagonists through some bad stuff on the way. I always find myself cheering them on mentally when things get really rough.

01 May 2007

Actual Play - Wild Talents & Spirit of the Century

This week was an odd session.

Wild Talents Cold War

First we finished the Wild Talents Cold War mission. This went pretty rapidly as they managed to move quick enough to stay ahead of the pursuers (plus some nice use of their Talents to bluff their way through a couple of checkpoints). I then had a bit of fallout in the debriefing, as they'd gone for the big guns (as it were) very quickly, and created somewhat of an incident. The reactions of the various characters to the debriefing and subsequent training and enforced leave was interesting to play out.

The game left me a little cold, though. Partly this is the traditional nature of the thing. I'd spent an hour or so the day before preparing some stuff, including statting out a couple of Talent bad guys for them to fight, but that never got used due to them outwitting the soldiers they actually met. Although the stats can be used in another game later, it's still kind of annoying.

It's also hard to come up with things when the characters are essentially a pile of combat abilities with a little background attached. In particular, I find that improvising situations is very difficult. This wouldn't be the case after the characters have built up a bit of history, but after only one character generation session and one and a half of play, there isn't much to work with. I may need to finish my spy mission generator tables for Fade, just so that I can use them here too.

I'm considering that it may be time to just throw in the towel on traditional games, and stick with the ones that give me more tools to play in the manner that we do. That is, the group in general doesn't have time to prep or mess around. Games that set us up for instant play seem to work much better. Which leads me into...

Spirit of the Century

As we had a lot of time left, I pulled out Spirit of the Century, which I had cunningly brought along for just this contingency. We made up a bunch of characters, and we'll play a game of that before returning to Wild Talents for another mission.

Character generation in Spirit of the Century is just fantastic. We really got into it, and the way that it builds up works great.

First you work out a concept and think up a good, pulpy name. Coming up with the names was the first part where people started to get into it.
  • Doctor Quantum, scientist.
  • Sarge Splatter, werewolf.
  • Ella House, cabaret singer.
  • Rory Flashheart, adventurer.
Then you work out their early life and details about their family, and pick two aspects relating to that. Then what the character did in The Great War (all the characters are born on 1 January 1901, as part of the setting). These led to some neat images and aspects, and everyone was clearly building up a good idea of their character at this point.

Then we got to the first novel section, where you invent the title and back cover blurb of the first pulp novel starring your character. This is followed by guest appearances from two of the other characters, who add to the blurb.

We ended up with:

She Sang For Your Supperstarring Ella House
Ella had a voice to die for! Larger than life, she needed yours - but has she met her match in Lothario Lounge? Sarge Splatter adds a meaty aperitif, and Rory Flashheart discovers a whole new side to himself when he sings on stage!

Rory Flashheart vs the Diabolical Belgian Rosicrucians
With his love, Ada Jones, kidnapped by evil Lord Lashley for bloody sacrifice, Rory must fight his way into the Rosicrucian castle! Little does he know the terrible traps he will have to avoid! And how will he deal with Ella, mistress of iniquity? How will his true love cope with her forbidden charms? Doctor Quantum arrives in the nick of time to test his Detectotron - but will that be enough to save them?

Doctor Quantum and the Earthquake Machine
Doctor Quantum investigates a cluster of earthquakes on the west coast - his studies lead him to the den of the Jaguar Cult and their Earthquake Machine! Doctor Quantum enlists Rory Flashheart to fight his way to the Earthquake machine! With the Doctor surrounded by Jaguars, Sarge Splatter evens the score!

Sarge Splatter vs The Dessicator!
The most gore-soaked book ever printed! These two juggernauts go head to head! Who will walk away victorious? Doctor Quantum arrives just in time to hydrate Sarge with his Osmosis Device!
Ella's allure melts Sarge Splatter's bloody heart!

As you may guess from those, we were really having fun. I personally liked that we had a couple of science hero/adventure pulps, plus a sordid and exploitative one, and the gory horror. Should make an... interesting... combination. To be honest, a few sessions of making up characters would be fun in and of itself.

However, the thing that I (as a GM) really liked is that these characters are built almost completely of things to hang stories off. Every character ends up with ten Aspects, which are strong flags (as well as (dis)advantages) and five Stunts (pulp powers, also flagging what sort of challenges to set up). Even the skill choices strongly point you at certain scenes. Taken with the immense amount of GM advice in the book, it seems almost the opposite of what I was finding annoying about Wild Talents.

So, next session we'll hit the sample adventure in the book and see how that plays out.