31 August 2007

Excite Truck

This is a simple, ludicrously over the top racing game. The very straightforward controls are it's biggest draw (hold wiimote sideways, tilt to turn, 1 is brake, 2 accelerator and d-pad turbo boost). It combines this with silly tracks including powerups that can deform the terrain and a physics model that is... forgiving, shall we say (these 4 wheel drive trucks can jump any distance with no ill effects, for example).

Lots of fun.

SSX: Blur

After reviewing Resident Evil, I guess I'd better shout out for the other games I have for Wii.

SSX:Blur is the current one I'm playing most, a skiing/snowboarding game that is mainly about winning races and doing the craziest tricks. It's fun for the general just cruising down the slopes part of the game, and the races are fun too. It's been criticized for overly complex controls, and this is a fair call - the special ubertricks are really hard to pull off. But the basic controls are fine.

The game is pretty much all about doing things to unlock more stuff - pretty much every aspect of the game has extras that you only get after completing races etc.

Fun, but not fantastic (I didn't buy it full price, but picked it up when it was on sale after renting it to try out).

30 August 2007

Titans of Chaos by John C Wright

Exciting but ultimately unsatisfying fantasy. It's brought down by insanely overcomplicated politics and plots, plus a disturbing exploitative attitude to the the two teenage girls in the group of heroes.

27 August 2007

Shock: Actual Play - Everything Is Social Networking

On Saturday, me and Make Tea Not War played a game of Shock:. Our Shock was picked to be life-logging, inspired by this piece by Charles Stross. The issues were "Games = Work" (the idea that leisure and work activities all used the same technologies and were often indistinguishable) and Privacy.

The characters where:
  • Lucy Doe, an orphan who was behind a '43 things' style organisation movement. Her antagonist was her roommate in a Big Brother style house (and later, the whole media network behind that show). This was Tea's character.
  • Aedo Shogo was a blogger and conspiracy theorist. His antagonist was a mysterious stalker. This was my character.
Both characters had links to, in essence, their blog followers (although as they both pretty much broadcast their whole lives, this was somewhat more than we are used to).

Lucy's story was about her desire to find her family - something that is obviously somewhat mysterious in a world where basically everything is recorded. Her story dealt with her annoying roommate and then the executives behind the broadcast, as the whole thing turned up to be a setup (including her being an orphan - this turned out to be untrue).

Shogo's story was about his attempts to uncover "the" conspiracy. His stalker began interrupting his monologues - and he couldn't work out how he was being hacked. Following hir hints, Shogo broke a coverup over the Mars landings (this subsequently turned out to be fabricated) before going "off the grid" into hiding to escape the stalker. This failed, and he had to deal with the stalker then convincing him to sit on his evidence. In the process he risked and changed both links twice.

Now, at the time we felt somewhat uninspired. The shock we picked wasn't wild and crazy or anything, but I've found myself thinking back on some of the stuff we dealt with a few times. We discussed a little, and concluded that in some ways we know each other too well for there to be many surprises in a game like this. However, we both pulled a twist on each other about the antagonists that was out of the blue.

In my case, this was the revelation that Lucy's parents essentially sold her to reality TV. In Tea's it was that Shogo's stalker was a fan who was in love with him (and thus all the creepy hacking and fake conspiracy was designed to be what he wanted most). And, after thinking about it, those are both really quite cool (and creepy).

We played with the 1.0 book but 1.1 handouts and the pdf on a laptop for reference. The 1.1 changes helped make things run a little smoother, but that's the limit of what I noticed about it. The main thing I like is that antagonist credits are checkboxes - much easier to track!

26 August 2007

Shaolin Soccer

This kung-fu/sport movie by Stephen Chow is gloriously ludicrous.

Man of War by Allan Mallinson

Another novel in the Hervey series, this one was good but felt a little unfocused. Partly this was due to the fact that all the action happens to someone else (his friend, the Navy Captain Peto). Hervey himself deals with various regimental, legal and relationship issues but doesn't get anywhere near a shot fired in anger. For all that, the reflective side of these novels has always been one of the highlights. And it's still good.

22 August 2007

The Graveyard Game by Kage Baker

Another good episode in the Company books, this one is mainly about Lewis and Joseph. This is one of the earlier books, and there is definitely a change in emphases in the stories as they go on. Interesting.

21 August 2007

Agon play update

Played another episode of Agon last night. We finished our first island, with a few normal contests followed by an epic battle with Gorgos the giant. I felt that all of us have got a better handle on the tactics required, and the battle was notably harder fought all round.

The game has maintained the fun, although it's still primarily tactical in focus. I.e. we tend to omit scene-setting and in-character chat and move on to the next battle/contest/interlude quickly. I did try to increase focus on the colour this session, because I'm concerned it could turn into just a tactical game, which is not what I'm after. My efforts were only marginally successful, however. This may imply that we don't really need to change anything, I guess. It's possible I should just save up my creativity in this area for the next game (which I'm thinking will be Reign or maybe Cold City)

Lessons learned this week:
  • Track divine favour, wounds and glory with counters next time! Also provide some new character sheets to replace the ones destroyed by continual changes to these values.
  • The Antagonist gets Strife for all kinds of things, not just interlude scenes. Who knew? Mental note: read through the rules again.

Eagle vs Shark

I watched this on Saturday. I was a bit disappointed, because I went in expecting a comedy, but it was more a blackly comic character study of dysfunctional weirdos. As that, it's a perfectly good film, but it wasn't exactly what I was in the mood for.

19 August 2007

Sky Coyote by Kage Baker

Another Company novel (the second, in fact). From the perspective of someone who has read the later books, this feels like setup and character building, but of course it is a good story in itself. It's about Joseph, who has the job of posing as the god Sky Coyote in order to convince a village of doomed Chumash to come along with him and be preserved in a Company facility. This leads to various hijinks (this book is lighter than most of them).

Resident Evil 4 (Wii edition)

I just finished this last night. It's a great game, and the Wii edition doesn't really show it's age (I guess the graphics seem a little unpolished, but not enough to matter).

The story is pretty good (i.e. for a computer game), with some bosses who are really annoying and thus very satisfying when you get to kill them. Overall the atmosphere is creepy with bursts of action, as you clear out the village full of people possessed by Lovecraftian parasitic monsters. It is goddamn gory, though - sprays of blood all over, heads explode when you shoot them and some of the 'You died' animations... ick.

The Wii control scheme works really well. The implementation of aim and shoot is very natural and a lot of fun (and includes the often terrifying feature that you cannot move and shoot at the same time). There's a bunch of the puzzles that I associate with console games, but not too many, and none of them are really hard or perversely obscure. Oh, yeah, save points. That's another annoying console thing, but they're frequent and generally well placed.

Biggest recommendation for the game. After finishing it at 11.30pm I almost started a new game at the next difficultly level straight away (mainly because you unlock another outfit for the main dude, and I wanted to see it).

15 August 2007

The Execution Channel by Ken Macleod

A really good novel from MacLeod, this one harks back to The Star Fraction in style. In this case, the story is an alternate near future (rather than a less near future that is consistent with our history). In this world, the war on terror has gone further and is on the verge of triggering a third world war, and the story follows a few characters as they react to this.

12 August 2007

The Machine's Child by Kage Baker

This Company story carries on from The Life of the World to Come and pretty much is the final chapter that I wanted in that book. I guess it makes sense to split it if it took a whole extra novel to do this, but the previous one still felt truncated.

In any case, generally good stuff in the vein of the other novels. Some parts seem a bit bogged down in left over plot threads from the previous books (this effect is accentuated by the time travel). And the endgame isn't quite ready yet, although it feels like Baker's getting pretty close to giving us the story of the Company's fate after 2355 (the year after which they have no information).

09 August 2007

Reign by Greg Stolze

Stolze's new game is a fantasy take on the One Roll Engine (ORE) that he developed for Godlike (and has seen further work in Wild Talents and Nemesis). The version in Reign is a little cleaner, with a few tweaks, but essentially the same as the previous versions.

The biggest addition - and the focus of the game - are the rules for companies. These are groups that the player characters are members (or leaders) of. The rules allow companies to be given stats, and contain rules for how companies can do things. These include how character actions can affect the company (e.g. you might do some individual mission that gives your company an advantage) and vice versa. These rules all fit in well to the existing ORE, and seem like a natural extension of it. Companies can be any organisation - a small street gang or merchant cooperative through mercenary band or spy network right up to an entire kingdom or empire.

The second biggest addition is the one-roll character generation system. There's a plain point buy option, but the random method is much more fun. You roll 11d10, and each set ends up being a job the character has done at some point in their life. Unmatched dice add random events to the character's history. Each job or event adds a few skills, special abilities, or a stat increase. Then you think about what you have and come up with the story behind it all.

These stories can be quite cool ones too. Here's one: disinherited as a child, he grew up as a beggar before becoming an infantryman. Then he got picked by a noble officer as a personal servant (complete with some education) before giving that up as a bad lot and running away to sea.

The setting Stolze provides is pretty cool, too. The game is clearly intended to be easily adaptable to settings of your choice, but the packaged one is strongly tied to all the esoteric techniques, martial arts and magical schools. The world is one in which the continents are the bodies of the gods - so that one country actually goes completely around an arm, for example (this is really neat but it makes imagining the geography really hard). There are four cultures detailed, giving a variety of places to start and plenty of ideas for characters and companies. The material is all evocative and seems well thought out, but I wasn't immediately grabbed by it. There is plenty of room to make it your own by filling in details and gaps left in the text, which suits me fine. The world is also very determinedly different to our own (far beyond the weird landscape), in a way that is kind of compelling.

The advice on running the game seems good, aimed at a traditional style game with a strong character focus. The expected mode is that the players create a company between them, then a character each who is part of it. Then the story will be about the company and what happens to it. Individual characters might die or retire, but the player can simply create a new one and carry on with the company's story.

As it's a traditional style game, there's a lot of crunch for combat there, but this is largely optional addons to the ORE (e.g. special combat maneuvers). Some of these are fantastic - like the 'Display kill', in which you gruesomely finish off a foe in an attempt to scare their comrades.

Stolze is supporting the game via supplements for ransom - after he writes each supplement, he requests a certain value in donations. When this amount is reached, the supplement is made freely available from his website. So far there are two available, both with some good extra bits (new magic schools, martial arts and the one-roll company generator stand out). The rulebook also inexplicably is missing a character sheet, but this too can be downloaded off Stolze's website.

Good presentation (it would count as fantastic if the print-on-demand process did full justice to the art, but it seems to lack some definition internally). The red, Daniel Solis, cover is beautiful and the hardcover seems very well constructed.

Overall: reads like a solid, dependable fantasy system with some good new ideas. Still basically traditional gaming style.

08 August 2007

New Doctor Who, series two.

Another good series, basically the same as the first one in style (80% jokes, 15% horror, 5% drama). I liked Tennant more as the Doctor than Eccleston, but they bring a similar attitude to the role. Evil aliens continue to be blown up at the end of each episode.

One thing that did bother me a little - so many of the plots are Frankenstein plots. I feel like the show's writers have an unhealthy attitude to progress. In the show, any attempt to improve things using science ends up (1) perverted by aliens so that it threatens to destroy the world, (2) gets out of control and threatens to destroy the world, (3) leads to the people trying it turning into inhuman monsters who threaten to destroy the world. I realise that it is not a deep show, but as a bit of a transhumanist, I do find this all rather distastefully Romantic. And I have heard far too many speeches from the Doctor about how wonderful humans are as they are now (i.e. pure noble nature) and how any attempt to change this (e.g. cure disease, extend lifespan, place the brain into a robot warrior body) will inevitably destroy everything good about us. Bah!

One For The Morning Glory by John Barnes

A fantastic light-hearted fantasy novel. The humour is strange - shades of Jack Vance - but very funny indeed. A particularly nice touch is a constant replacing of words... the people talk of hunting gazebo, shooting with their omnibuses, riding on a horse-drawn tumulus, and suchlike.

The story is a heroic fairy tale, and the Prince and his companions are quite aware of this and often decide what to do based on whether it would fit into the narrative or not. These moments are not too often, and are not overdone.

07 August 2007

More Agon: Isle of Gold 3

We worked through another quest and a half. Still a lot of fun, and our increasing knowledge of how the rules work made this game a bit more tactically satisfying (I even managed to defeat one of the heroes, using a 'everyone gang up on this one guy' strategy).

06 August 2007

The Life of the World to Come by Kage Baker

Another Company novel, this one is the most traditionally novel-like of the ones I've read so far (as most are made of connected short stories, rather than a single plot). It clears up a bunch of the questions about the world that she's set up in previous books. I was, however, disappointed that it seemed to be missing the final chapter (in that something big and exciting is just about to happen when the book ends). I suspect that this might be because the final chapter bloomed into a whole book or something? In any case, literally anticlimactic.

She also throws in some odd laser-sharking near the end. Things are pretty weird to start with, but then a whole other weird event occurs which pretty much made me go "wtf?" I can see why she might have put it in thematically (in order to show certain aspects of the story), but I think things would have been better without it. Of course, Baker has had psychic stuff here and there throughout the series, so I guess more weird bits like this are to be expected. I'm still a strong believer in the rule "No magic in science fiction stories!" If people want psychic powers and so on, they should either explain them in a plausible manner or write a fantasy story instead. And just giving the psychic powers a pseudoscientific name doesn't count as explaining it.

All that ranting aside, it's a good book. Exciting, and a lot of exploration of her fun ultra-safe, ultra-puritanical future.

04 August 2007

ConFusion Report

Well, report on 2/3 of it anyhow. I didn't feel up to a third session, and skipped out after playing one game and running another.

First was Machine Tractor Station [some Russian word]-37, a Call of Cthulhu scenario. This was great fun, mainly because the characters and mystery are so well constructed. We ran over time and had to have the part at the end where we all died happen fairly abstractly. Still, good stuff. Anyone going to Fright Night will have a chance to play it, which I recommend.

Then I ran my FATE 3/Traveller scenario again. This went well with lots of use of Aspects for increased fun, plus the changes I had made increased the danger of combat to about the level that Traveller demands. The caper played out somewhat differently to the first run through, although key betrayals and revelations all came up.

02 August 2007

New Doctor Who, series one.

After only two years, finally got around to watching this. It's good stuff - jokey stories with a dark edge to them, and some good acting from the leads. The actual stories vary a lot in tone, some being purely for laughs and others being genuinely creepy.

It's reminiscent of the Doctor Who I recall watching as a kid and teenager, but not exactly the same. For one thing, this one has some decent special effects. The stories seem to hold together a little more than I remember the Tom Baker/Peter Davison ones doing, although they still generally rely on the Doctor saving everyone via an unlikely trick at the end.

I guess it's the characters (and thus actors) who make it enjoyable... they certainly do seem to be having fun making the show. Now for season two!

First Among Sequels by Jasper Fforde

This new Thursday Next novel is fun, and filled with as many puns and literature in-jokes as you should expect. The story isn't quite as compelling as the previous ones, and suffers a little from too much focus on the details of Next's world.

01 August 2007

The Story Games Names Project

This was put together by a bunch of people on the Story Games forum. It's a huge collection of lists of twenty names (and some other random stuff) to use in your gaming. I can't speak for actual play yet, but it looks like it will be a fantastic resource to spur ideas and fill in names in play.

It's divided into particular cultures/settings, so you should be able to keep it open on a relevant page and roll names as required. It's 278 pages, with 2-4 name lists per page. There's a good selection of modern cultures and historical real names. There's also a section for fantasy setting names, and humorous ones too.

Some highlights to illustrate the range:
  • Ridiculous Hobos
  • Space Cowboys
  • Forensic Techniques
  • Catalan
  • Inuit
  • Roman (with two pages of instructions on how they named each other).
It can be bought, at cost price, from lulu.com: Names. For any GM who struggles to think up good names as much as I do, it's a must-buy.