31 December 2007

In War Times by Kathleen Ann Goonan

Strange novel about... well, responses to world war two, I guess, in the context of people trying to improve humanity so that it doesn't happen again.

Some things bothered me, like some pretty blah stuff about consciousness and quantum (a personal bugbear of mine). However, as a meditation on the human condition and how to prevent wars, it's a good one.

In The Garden Of Iden by Kage Baker

Finally, I read the very first of the Company books. It's also one of the best, following the immortal cyborg Mendoza in her early years, mainly her first mission. Has everything that the series is great for - humour, pondering the place of the cyborgs, sinister Dr Zeus plans, etc.


28 December 2007

Red Box Hack - Temple of the Dragon Priests

I played a game of this last night with a pick up group at hix's house con. Overall, we had a blast.

Character generation was a highlight, with everyone enjoying the classes and talent picks. We then had a small changeover as a pre-planned game began, and two players left, passing their characters to other people. Both characters appealed to the new players, luckily, so that was fine.

We had time to go through about half the dungeon I had planned - this involved the 'find out stuff in town' scenes, getting there, fighting a monster that was hunting from the dungeon, and then taking out a goblin tribe in the old temple.

The first fight was with a tough wolf-beast, and the four characters only just survived (two were taken out). This was partly that I made it too tough, and partly that one particular power was overpowered. However, a burst of cunning tactics by the remaining two players had them defeat it okay.

Then they scouted out the old temple, got spotted by goblin guards. The scouting pcs took out the guards, then there was a big battle versus the goblin warlord with 12 more goblins. The warlord had a neat power that allowed him to redirect damage onto his mooks, which was a lot of fun for all. This guy also had the first treasure they were after.

Then the sneaky snake character got into the goblin area and scouted it out inside, and another battle began to take out the goblin shaman (monster). The shaman had the stun power, and this was another close fought battle, with people still down hp after the first one. They won, and everyone levelled up.

That brought us to the end of our time, so we finished up there (leaving the dragon priest cult untouched in the lower levels, maybe they'll get theirs another time).

We discussed what worked, and everyone liked the simple system and combat, and the fact there were a few tactical options in there.

Seems like the system is basically solid, though. I think it really just needs the GM planning section sorted out and a few more tweaks.

It had a lot of the cool tactical feel of Agon, but with the emphasis on teamwork instead of individual glory, and a more light-hearted attitude. Great stuff.

26 December 2007

Endless Universe by Paul Steinhardt and Neil Turok

This is some cosmology for laypeople. Specifically, the authors are introducing a new theory of cyclic universes as an alternative to the big bang with inflation model that is currently the received view. They're obviously excited by the research (which they appear to be leading champions of) but also cautious about a theory that so far is observationally indistinguishable from the competition.

It's a fairly easy read, with no mathematics and a fairly slow buildup of jargon. The theory is fascinating too, and I can understand the feeling that it is more elegant than inflation (at least, as they presented it here). It's the idea that the universe is a n-dimensional membrane that is paired with another across a microscopic extra dimension. I've come across this before, as an explanation for dark matter (in this case, the dark matter is in the companion space-time: undetectable by radiation but gravitationally interacting). They focus more on the way that this generates a model for the existence of the cosmic background radiation, expanding space and a variety of that sort of cosmological mystery. Essentially, it comes down to the two membranes crashing into each other periodically, then bouncing back for a trillion years or so before they collide again - which smashes everything into an immensely hot soup of basic particles before cooling down into stars and so forth again.

It's also rare to read popular science that is so cutting edge - normally it is about stuff that is much more settled than this.


Nine Worlds by Matt Snyder

I've already played this one, so I pretty much knew what I was getting into. The book's a very nice one, with some nice Art Nouveau page decorations that contribute a lot to the feel (especially when you make it most of the way through and discover that the setting is full of that style).

The mechanics have a few more subtleties that didn't come up in a one-shot, such as the choice of using Arete (skill) versus Hubris (magic) in every conflict is also a statement about whether you accept the rule of the Primarchs (i.e. the Olympians and Titans) or are rejecting it. There are also a lot of nifty options in the results that we didn't use all of.

Conflict resolution is by cards. You draw a number of cards based on your Arete or Hubris plus any relevant Muses (character goals). You are looking for a number of cards in one suit, which you then add to the ability associated with that suit to get your total. The ability chosen also determines how you deal with the conflict - if you pick clubs for your total, then you used Chaos (destruction) to achieve your end. After the totals are revealed, there is a point scoring phase, in which you may take points from opponents that you beat. Face cards, aces and jokers score points, and you then may use those you won plus your own to temporarily rearrange the stats of anyone involved in the conflict. Exactly how depends on the suit played, but options include moving points from one character to another, increasing or decreasing them, or locking the current scores for a while. My feeling is that this will get really interesting once the group gets a good handle on the rules, allowing a lot of fun tactics. In the game I played, we really just scratched the surface of this stuff.

Once again, a shout out goes to Muses, the coolest thing in the game. These are player-authored character goals. Once you resolve it one way or another, the current rating gives you points towards character development. These can be of two different types, depending on whether you had more Arete or Hubris successes for the goal.

The setting is both really cool and extremely evocative. Snyder provides a huge, epic, history to build on. Then he presents a page on each of the nine worlds that describes a few key conflicts going on there right now, together with some statted up NPCs for that world (usually deeply involved in the conflicts just mentioned). The color is pulled from Greek myth, with the Olympians and Titans currently in a cold war type of situation after a couple of wars that raged through all the worlds. It seems prefectly matched for the intention of allowing each group to pick a couple of their favorite places to build the story from, and then just go from there. I also really like that it's set up so that you can build your character up to change the world - there's a sort of endgame where you become a champion for a Primarch (ruler of a world) or instead usurp a Primarch's position.

Good stuff, recommended!

24 December 2007

A Prairie Home Companion

I was somewhat surprised by how much I enjoyed this Robert Altman film. It's about the very last show of a Grand Old Opry style radio evening. It pretty much just shows you all the people involved and lets them do their thing. In feel, very much like The Big Lebowski (albeit without quite as much darkness as is usual for the Coens).

69 A.D. : The Year of Four Emperors by Gwyn Morgan

Fairly dense history of the civil war that the title implies. Morgan is attempting to take the few but disparate sources and work out what was most likely to have actually happened. The paucity of material means that a lot of this is fairly speculative (or relies on just one original author). On top of this, the number of people and legions involved means that just keeping track of those is hard work in itself.

22 December 2007


A strange film about a teenager who still sucks his thumb. It's in the quirky family comedy-drama genre, a bit like Little Miss Sunshine or Rushmore. I liked it for not having anything really terrible - no awful secrets, just people dealing with odd problems.

The main thing that I loved, though, was Keanu Reeves. He is the main guy's orthodontist, and plays the guy as a new age spiritual mentor. It's fantastic, and the film is worth seeing just for that.

19 December 2007

Queen of Candesce by Karl Schroeder

This novel follows on from Sun of Suns. Like the first, it has a big weird setting that serves as a backdrop to a great adventure story.

In this one, a character who I remember as one of the villains from the first novel is the focus. She finds herself stranded in a bizarre corner of the world, and sets herself the task of getting home. This involves taking on a whole group of insular, crazy nations in the habitat.

Good stuff.

18 December 2007

Reign: The County of Grockelfin

We played a one-shot using Reign. My idea was to have everyone roll random characters, see what we got and then either point-build or roll a company for them. After that, I'd grab some of the companies I made up, pick some as antagonists and let it all roll, driven by the players' plans for their company.

This overall structure worked well. We had a variety of down on their luck but previously important characters, and they rolled a small coastal area as their company. One-roll character generation was a success in this context, creating some interesting characters that gave everyone some unusual elements to build on - perhaps the coolest was the bastard who was stranded and raised by animals as a child. We decided that they had been shuffled out of the way by the king for various reasons, and put in charge of this impoverished border county.

After some initial discussions, they decided to go after the rebels in the hills, mainly as a way to build up the county - their first raid was intended to loot all the rebels' goods. After some misadventures in the early stages, this became personal and over the course of the evening they conquered the rebels utterly. We also had some other side-plots, with a religious sect, some mercenaries and one PC's (doomed) attempt to take the company's influence rating above zero (so that he could be the spymaster that he claimed to be).

We had to abbreviate a lot to fit in the company action, leaving most of the PC missions down to a single scene or two. Given longer term play, these would be much more of a focus (and thus much more fun). On the other hand, we gave the company rules a decent workout and had a lot of fun.

Positives: The company stuff worked well, and gives you some easy goals in play. The world has some cool features, that added some good colour (although I was fairly cautious about infodumps, I did a couple on major points - geography and ghosts as I recall).

Negatives: The magic system and esoteric disciplines are pretty over the top for a one shot - there's a lot to take in. Almost certainly this is a non-issue for medium or long term play.

16 December 2007

The Sons of Heaven by Kage Baker

Goodness, the final novel in the Company stories. It's an epic conclusion, perhaps somewhat rushed as Baker ties up all the loose ends from the series. There's also an element of deus ex machina at the very end. That's not to say it's annoying - in fact the over the top elements there are in many ways sidelines to what's actually happening, rather than a way to avoid concluding it properly (it might be that it was required to prevent the book being twice as long).

The ending is a good one, too. She answers or addresses all the interesting questions about immortality, time travel, and so forth that she has brought up through the series. Satisfactory!

Now I just have to read the first one...

The Letter of Marque by Patrick O'Brian

This novel basically continues the story from The Reverse of the Medal. Here, Aubrey has been struck off the navy list and is commanding a privateer. The story deals with his use of this to get himself reinstated and how he deals with all his dreams and plans being destroyed. Although there is no shortage of action in this story, it's another that shows different sides of Aubrey and Maturin, as they deal with their various problems.

14 December 2007

The Reverse of the Medal by Patrick O'Brian

This book is fairly unusual in the series in that little of it takes place at sea. The plot concerns legal entanglements and spying in England, mainly, and so it's a change of pace from most of the series. However, this gives us a different perspective on Aubrey and Maturin.

10 December 2007

The Far Side of the World by Patrick O'Brian

Another re-read. I was once again reminded of how utterly different the source novel is to the film adaptation (not in a bad way - I think it was about the best a single film could do with O'Brian's novels). The main themes of the film are almost unrelated to those in the book, and the naval action is too. Odd.

Treason's Harbour by Patrick O'Brian

Another re-read. This is one of the books that gets deepest into Maturin's work as a secret agent, and this gives it overall a very tense story (especially as we the readers know of a traitor that he does not). It is also the first time we really get to know Reverend Martin, and his unfortunate habit of being bitten, stung or otherwise abused by random creatures.

03 December 2007

Magicians of the Depression (Mortal Coil)

Tonight we embarked on a short period of trying out one-shots of various games that I have not yet managed to play. First up was Mortal Coil.

Our setup was that we were in a small town in the dustbowl. The characters were some magicians who were all miners (although the mine had shut down). It seemed that they spent their days at the union hall, fighting the mayor and presumably any other people who threatened the status quo. Interestingly, they resisted things that might have directly helped them (i.e. a railroad line to the town).

Setup and character generation was fun, and provided a good basis for the world. However, it felt pushed to do it quickly enough to fit some play into the same session. An entire evening building the world with play the next time would have worked better.

The conflict system works, although there's a lot to keep track of. Possibly more than I can manage as a GM (especially when multiple NPCs get involved). The total lack of randomizers is also kind of odd... just mentally different and subtly odd.

Everyone really enjoyed the ability to define magic as we went. That part was great fun.

Good game, but looks like it really needs continued play to get to the game's strengths.

02 December 2007

Hadrian's Wall by William Dietrich

A good adventure story, perhaps tending a little towards over-romantic (although I prefer authors to err in this direction than cynical misanthropy).

The story is framed by an investigation into some terrible event that occurred at a fort on Hadrian's wall in 367 AD. It's only gradually revealed what occurred, but we follow a patrician woman, sent from Rome to marry the new prefect as part of their two families' political alliances. She gets involved in some Celtic barbarian raids and rivalries and tension between the Roman officers.

This isn't really a time and place generally associated with stories about Rome, and I think that Dietrich enjoyed that aspect of the story. The legions (and indeed Romans) that he writes about here are very different from those we generally think of (e.g. in the time of Julius Caesar and Augustus).

Spione by Ron Edwards

This book is part general history of spying in the Cold War (particularly in Berlin) and discussion of the popular culture associated with it. It's also a game to replicate personal spy stories - basically stories like Le Carre's.

The history part is very good. It's concise, and packed with interesting facts. As well as that, it follows neither an academic historical format nor that of a typical history aimed at laypeople. It's somewhere in between, but not on a direct line. Perhaps it's just that it seems to reflect Edwards' own research and discoveries (and his excitement while doing that).

The game is quite specific and closed. You tell the story of two spies in Berlin during the Cold War. Characters are pre-generated and included in the book. However, the personal history and role as a spy are separate. Character generation is basically picking one person and one spy sheet, and sticking them together.

The other element to character generation is one that I find somewhat out of my comfort zone. Every player is required to write down two 'trangressions' - morally wrong things that they or someone they know has done. The player for each of the two characters each pick one of these at random and this act becomes part of the character's history. This feels like it's getting into a kind of psychodrama that I have no real interest in exploring. On the other hand, these spy stories generally include flawed characters and this method seems well picked to have a plausible and relevant flaw included.

The other players, by the way, share the responsibility for playing all other characters in the game.

Play proceeds by building up scenes, each player taking turns to add elements. The scenes generally are about one or the other spy, but everyone gets a turn to add to them. When the scenes reach a flashpoint (that's the game term - essentially a critical conflict) then you go into a card game to resolve that. Each player has a particular card associated, and a certain number (based on the character) are laid out. Then you play a few rounds of a game that allows you to maneuver your cards around. This allows you to influence the order of narration (each player narrates as their cards are placed in the line) and how much authority you have (e.g. if you lay a card on another player's, they narrate one thing and then you add to that; only if you have two matching cards may you narrate a character's death; etc).

Play continues through building up scenes to flashpoints until a spy's friends and companions are all removed from play - then the character comes in from the cold, one way or another. Once both spy's stories are over, the game is finished.