29 October 2007

Hero's Banner - Brutal Politics

We played a game of Hero's Banner just now. It was really fucking good. Reading the text did not really convey how the influence and passion rules bring everything together.

The characters were: Stelion, a duke's son from Uran; Horea, the dispossessed prince of Tucaescu and Prince Gregore, son of the man who usurped the Tucaescuan throne.

Things started pretty strong with war between those kingdoms. In the Tucaescan army, Gregore's older brother was assassinated (by Gregore) at a dinner. Stelion, attempting to reach the army to murder his blood-enemy General Valentin, realised that he needed to return to the border garrisons to warn them of the size of the army. He failed, and his futile attempt to disrupt their advance left his squadron dead.

There was a threat that Horea, incognito in the army, might have his true name revealed. The informer was shot before she could do so.

Then Stelion was instructed to lead the Uranian army in defense. His battle plan failed, and the defending army was slaughtered to a man. In the formal meeting to admit defeat he attempted to murder General Valentin, and for this Gregore branded his forehead in punishment for his dishonour, before releasing him.

A few other scenes had some smaller scale back and forth, with some rivals murdered and various choices made about the influences.

Then we got kicking again with a royal wedding between Prodan and Ryeic. In the mansions of the Church, Stelion led 70 knights into the Tucaescan apartments and slaughtered them. Horea had disguised himself as one of them and joined in - mainly so he could kill the usurper personally. Gregore escaped with his fiance and some servants, only to be headed off by Stelion. The branding was repaid but only after Gregore saw his companions dead.

Horea rushed back to Tucaescu to claim the throne, and decided (at the advice of his dukes) to once again invade Uran while they were weak. Suffering a breakdown at this point, he led the army with a curtain of frost that slew the defenders in their path. Then the invasion was pulled back, as Gregore made a play for the throne in Horea's absence.

Stelion left his wife, soon after the wedding, to pursue General Valentin, who led the retreating army. Fighting on the same field as they had previously, they killed each other in the thick of the fighting.

Gregore made his final effort to take the throne back, and failed while reaching 100 passion. He instead elected to become a hidden master of spies and assassins, working to returning his family to power in later generations.

Finally, Horea reached 100 passion too, and ruled Tucaescu as a wise king for the rest of his days. That lasted until he was poisoned at his legitimate son's fifth birthday celebration.

Now, that was some meaty stuff for a one-off, with no preparation (the expected game was canceled due to an illness), and with a group who normally plays more for humour than this savage blood opera would lead you to expect.

Just sitting there after the epilogues, I can just see how well it will play as a campaign, too. Taking that terrible mess and crafting characters who look back on some of those we generated as their hero influences for the next episode will create a powerful, organic history of the kingdoms. I am really looking forward to playing more of this game.

Actual Play: The Infected

At the Fright Night convention, I ran another game of The Infected. It ran very well - still a few rough edges - but it certainly worked in the convention setting (which is what is intended for).

An actual play report is up at the Forge.

28 October 2007

Mendoza in Hollywood by Kage Baker

This is the third of the Company stories. I hope to get to number one soon.
In any case, this one is really good. Mainly, not a lot happens. The bulk of the book is about a few of the Company cyborgs working in 1862 in what will later become Hollywood (thus the title). They are mainly there to collect specimens of things that will soon be extinct. We follow them as they do their jobs, try to avoid boredom, and get into difficult situations with mortals. Mendoza is a good point of view character, as she's fairly misanthropic but also a keen observer of the people around her.

Recommended. Also, you should probably read it in order, unlike me.

25 October 2007

Making Money by Terry Pratchett

Another story centering on Moist von Lipwig (from Going Postal). In this one he is required to sort out the mint and central bank. The characters are fun, but overall the story lacks the bite of Pratchett's best recent novels (I'm thinking of Going Postal and Thud!, in particular). It feels like the ideas didn't quite come together as they were intended to, or something.

Still, there is plenty to enjoy along the way.

22 October 2007

Shark Island by Joan Druett

This is the second of the Wiki Coffin stories, and the best of them that I've read so far. A good mystery, and some really good characters. Highly recommended.

20 October 2007

The Outback Stars by Sandra McDonald

Good space opera, following a couple of crew on a large starship who get involved in sinister dealings. The characters are good, and the mystery is fairly compelling.

An interesting detail is that interstellar colonization is dominated by Australians and New Zealanders. It's implied that this might be due to climate change rendering much of the northern hemisphere almost uninhabitable, but never really explained.

18 October 2007

Cursor's Fury by Jim Butcher

Third in the Alera series, this one continues in much the same vein as the first two. It's better than the first two, with the story hitting its stride in this novel.

15 October 2007

Anger Management

Just ran a playtest of The Infected. Good stuff, the newer rules changes are a definite improvement. Another run (with the same setup) will be at the Fright Night convention on the 27th (if you are playing in that, the report is spoiler free).

14 October 2007

Run Afoul by Joan Druett

The third Wiki Coffin mystery, this one takes place while the fleet is in Rio de Janiero. The main death is regarded as accidental for most of the story, which diverts attention to the other things the characters are doing.

11 October 2007

Halting State by Charles Stross

Really good. The book is set in 2017, and explores what might occur as phones turn into serious computing platforms and MMOs take over the world. It's also good reading stories about hacking computer games by someone who actually understands how this would work.

There's a really odd point-of-view thing, where Stross describes what the characters are thinking with a structure like "So you do this and that." I'm not really sure what he was aiming for with it, but it jarred for me (especially as there are three different point of view characters).

08 October 2007

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson

I was expecting an autobiography, but I think this was really the same as his travel writing. It's just that in this case, it was about growing up in Des Moines in the 1950s. It is quite funny.

Hero's Banner by Tim C Koppang

It's hard to say much about this game based on reading and no play. It's designed so that you play the most important episodes in the lives of epic heroes, and when they're done, you move on to their successors.

It seems like it will do a good job of the multi-generational fantasy saga, something that I haven't seen really work before.

When you build a character, the key is defining three goals for them. Each is set within a specific domain, and they are intended to be in conflict (at least potentially). One is something personal that the character wants. One is something to do with your family. The final one is a hero, someone that the character respects or wishes to follow in the footsteps of.

The hero influence is the way that generations are connected - after the first episode, the characters from previous episodes will return as hero influences for the new characters.

Game play is described with aggressive scene-framing, with the GM setting up each scene so that it pushes towards a choice between the three influences for at least one character. When it comes to conflict, the player must choose which one the character goes with, and rolls against the corresponding influence score.

Passions change when a character fails and calls for a re-roll. Re-rolls are always allowed, but they cause the character's passions to become more extreme. The three influence scores always add up to 100, and each re-roll has you add to one (and thus subtract from the others). However, you may reorganize the scores after any change. So you can adjust what your character feels in a fairly extreme manner as play goes on - maybe the hero abandons their quest to regain the throne in a desire for glory in battle, for example.

This all stops when you reach 100 in one of the influences (and so 0 in the others). At this point, the character's story is done, and you get to describe how their life went, with the (now permanent) choice made.

So it seems like the game is about passionate, epic stories of larger than life characters making larger than life choices about how to live. Each episode is short (that is, you are expected to play through each generation in a session or two). I get a real feeling that the game will come into its own as you play through many generations and build up a history of the nations that have been guided by your heroes.

Play reports I've read seem to confirm that the individual stories work as I expect, but I don't recall seeing any that have gone over the generations.

07 October 2007

Mortal Coil by Brennan Taylor

This game seems aimed firmly at modern, urban fantasy stories (with Tim Powers and Neil Gaiman at the top of the list of inspirations).

The setting is built at the beginning of play, with the group putting together a list of key themes, things in the world and so on. There's a good chapter on building this up, and it seems well conceived to get a setting which everyone is invested in (much like Shock:). The character generation works in a similar way, defining a few more things about the world as you go, most likely.

Character generation is fairly straightforward otherwise, with a couple of things that stand out. First is that characters can pick one of four power levels, from novice or veteran (mortals with less or more experience), ancient (e.g. long-lived magicians or vampires) or ageless (e.g. gods and other immortals). Each step starts with more resources but has a little less flexibility (both in character generation and in game play). Second, players pick passions, driving motivations for the character. Interestingly, these must always add up to five points - if one increases, a point must be removed from another. In addition, if you use a particular passion more than once per session you must increase it, so there's a pull for characters to become obsessive if they use these resources in play. There's also an advantage to having as many passions in play as possible, so balancing having more (allowing you to use a bonus more times) versus less (each bonus is worth more) becomes something to consider in play.

Conflict is resolved without dice, instead relying on a resource bidding system. All resources are pools of points (with different uses). For each character, their player secretly allocates points to various action types and these are revealed simultaneously. Totals are based on points allocated plus various bonuses for situation, abilities, passions etc. It looks straightforward enough, although I don't have enough experience with systems like this to really be able to judge how it will play. Most pools can also have points sacrificed permanently for extra advantage - there are quite a few variations and specifics depending on what is happening and how it is being done.

The GM has to manage resources for all NPCs as well, just like the player characters. There is a key difference in that the GM's magic and power (a sort of uber-pool, also used for character development) are common over all NPCs.

The magic system is the main thing the system gets mentioned for, and it's pretty neat. During the setting creation steps, magic is defined in general terms. However, you are explicitly prohibited from naming any specifics at that point - they only come in during play. When a character uses any magic, the player spends a magic point and describes the effect desired. Another player then describes the price that a character must pay for that effect. This is then written into the setting details and is now part of how magic works in the world. Subsequently, any character may simply spend the magic point (and pay the in-game price) to get that effect.

E.g. A player who has a wizard character might say "Wizards can summon demonic helpers who can spy for them." The price is set at "And you need to provide a host body for the demon." From that point on, any wizard can do this in your game.

This seems like it will provide a good, organic magic system for your game that develops along with the story.

Also, the book looks really good. It has very evocative art from Jennifer Rodgers (although mainly showing the more horrific side of this genre).

Cold City Companion by Malcolm Craig

A short, but very useful compilation of extras to help with Cold City. This is a game I still haven't run, but I still want to. The Companion sounded like it would be helpful in this, and reading it did give me a few more handles on the game.

The first chapter is game advice, with some options about how to handle secrets and narrative authority and so good extra advice on building the characters and situation.

Next is a couple of optional rules, both of which seem to me like they belong in every game. The first is to play a scene about how the character became aware of twisted technology and/or how they were recruited into the RPA. The second is an alternative way to deal with negative traits, and looks much better than the original rule.

The rest is material to use in games - how other organisations (like the CIA, GRU and others) fit into Cold City's Berlin; some places of interest in the rest of the world; more sources of inspiration.

I can't imagine this not being a useful book for anyone playing the game.

04 October 2007

The Demon and the City by Liz Williams

Good but kind of odd fantasy/crime novel set in a near-future Singapore in a world where all the traditional gods and monsters have returned.

The crime novel part is mainly colour, with the novel playing out basically as a fantasy story. The characters are generally engaging, although there are just a few too many points of view (including some random 'interlude' chapters with completely new people that break up the climactic last few chapters).

A cautious recommendation for this.

Nine Worlds: The Dark Side of the Sun

Last weekend I played in a very fun one-off game of Nine Worlds. Read about it here.