29 December 2008

Azincourt by Bernard Cornwell

Cornwell's tale of the Agincourt campaign follows the career of a longbowman who gets made ventenar (sergeant in command of twenty archers) during those events. As fans of Cornwell may expect, he has a some diabolical enemies - some English, some French - who he crosses paths with on and off during the course of the novel. The times are brutal, and so is the story, especially his many little revisionist takes on the romanticized version of the story (e.g. Shakespeare's).

Most importantly, contains all the adventure and historical detail that you would expect. Great stuff.

26 December 2008

Music that I got in the primary gifting period.

I'm not going to say much about these, just list them. They are good! Look for them on youtube or something! Also, Graham Reid's elsewhere has lots of good reviews of most of them and usually a song you can listen to (I found out about many of them from his mailing list/RSS feed originally, and recommend both). Also, strictly speaking some of these were actually gifted to Make Tea Not War but I'm sure she won't mind sharing. Ordered by the order of the pile of CDs:
  • Frightened Rabbit: Midnight Organ Fight
  • Calexico: Carried To Dust
  • Samuel F Scott & the Bunnies on Ponies: Straight Answer Machine
  • David Byrne & Brian Eno: Everything That Happens Will Happen Today
  • Luke Buda: Vesuvius
  • Flogging Molly: Swagger, Drunken Lullabies

The Star Fraction by Ken MacLeod

I re-read this on a whim, seeing it on the library shelf, and was not disappointed. I think this may be his best novel - it's certainly so densely packed with ideas it seems liable to implode at any point. Fantastic. Should be on any serious science fiction fan's must-read list. Probably the must-own list, really.

For those who are late to the party, it follows a few characters, but centrally Moh Kohn, a mecenary with a hacked together gun/AI who discovers as part of a routine 'protect university science department from anti-technology terrorists' job that he seems to be a key part of some kind of backup plan to save British (or possibly global) socialism that was put together by his father (a genius computer programmer, and author of the OS/internet substrate of the computers used in the time of the novel) and seems to have suddenly activated itself. A combination of interesting and plausible politics and technologies make this work much better than many similar attempts. Also, there's a really good sprinkling of stuff that is just damn cool (the way that Gibson can also do so very well).

Rollback by Robert J Sawyer

An interesting, bittersweet novel about early life extension technologies. The main plot centres on a married couple. She was the person who deciphered the first message received from extraterrestrials, but is now 87. A response is received and she is offered a new (and phenomenally expensive) rejuvenation treatment to aid her efforts to decipher the alien's second message. She accepts, but only on the condition that her husband also gets the treatment. Unfortunately, it only works on him. The novel is from his point of view and explores the various effects that this has.


13 December 2008

Spindrift by Allen Steele

Reliably good hard sf space opera from Steele. This is in the Coyote universe but only loosely related to the Coyote stories, which I had been finding a little bogged down in their own history and characters recently, so this was somewhat refreshing. It's a first contact story, and a fun enough representative of the type.

The characters are fairly one-dimensional, and the bad guys in particular seem motivated by little else beyond the needs of the story to have some villains. On the other hand, the exploration and hazards of space sections more than make up for those shortcomings.

The Last Green Tree by Jim Grimsley

A strange kind of blend of science fiction and fantasy novel, dealing with magic that is allegedly some kind of sufficiently advanced technology (although it is hard to see how it is). In any case, the characters are strongly drawn and interesting, and their attempts to deal with the clash of magicians which incidentally wipes out most of a world.

It's sort of a follow on from The Ordinary, in that it is set in the same world and answers certain questions raised in that novel, but the connections are largely incidental.

04 December 2008

Hot Topic by Gareth Renowden

A nice general introduction to climate science, what is happening to the world, and what specifically is going to happen to New Zealand. The major topics of the IPCC reports are covered here, with a bit of expansion on areas of interest to New Zealand laypeople (or at least that is how it comes across - I must admit to only having read the summary versions of some of the IPCC reports myself).

03 December 2008

Mouse Guard RPG: Read-through Review

The pre-order for this includes a downloadable pdf, so I spent yesterday evening reading the whole thing. It captures the feel of the comic very well - there is an emphasis on teamwork, on being small creatures in a big dangerous world, and on making hard choices about what you beleive in.

Oh yeah... quick aside for those not familiar with the comics... mice are like people, they have a little medieval society and talk and stuff. All the other animals are basically just animals but as mice are tiny they are effectively monsters. The mouse guard are the mice who protect all the other mice from these dangers.

I'm not familiar with any of the other Burning Wheel games, so I can't give any comparison to those, but it's certainly a lovely system. The basic way you make tests is simple (roll a pool of six sided dice, 4-6 are successes, you need X successes where X  is picked by very following instructions in the skill description). The more elaborate kinds of tests and things you can do with them (teamwork, use of weapons and tools, etc) build on this base in straightforward ways.

There's also a real focus on getting into play fast - there are premade characters and missions in the book to start you off, and every kind of animal you might meet is statted out (even a bear, although I hope never to see a mouse patrol facing one). Every session each player gives their mouse a goal to try and acheive by the end, as well as the mission you have as a team. The GM sets out to put some obstacles in the way of the mission and goals. Things get interesting due to the failure mechanic. When a player fails a test, it isn't just 'do you succeed or fail'. Instead, the GM decides whether your mouse succeeds, but takes a condition (like now it's Tired, or Injured, etc) or fails, but there is a Twist in the story.

Adding a twist to the story allows the GM to bring in entirely new obstacles or sub-plots, and seems like it will make running a session go pretty smoothly while maintaining a sense of unpredictability and excitement.

The other neat thing is that after the mission is done, the players get a formal turn. This is basically the guards' down time, where the players get to finish up their goals, recover from the mission, and stuff like that. There's some limitations on how much you can do and you still have to make tests to get things done. Having this be directed by the players is a cool idea. I like it.

There's some overarching shape to the stories too - the seasons have a very pronounced impact on the day to day lives of the mice and the missions that the guard will need to do. There are a few ways suggested to use these changes to structure your games. All of them look pretty good (e.g. X sessions per season, X weather changes per season, etc). Over this there's an even bigger structure where the life of your patrol will probably come to a close as the characters retire or die.

Getting back to the point about running the game, it seems like it will fit into my preferred mode of 'think up a basic idea about what will happen in five minutes before the session and then run with it'. The characters have a whole lot of flags written in to the character sheet as well - friends, enemies, things they beleive in, things to roleplay each session, things they are good at, personal quirks, etc. These all have mechanical reasons to be incorporated into play, as well, so they'll be sure to be used.

There's plenty more in the rules, but I think it's premature to say more before play. At this stage, it all looks like it will be great.

Lastly, it looks absolutely fantastic. It is filled with David Petersen's art - some from the comics, some new (all stunning) - and printed in full colour. It's been printed through Petersen's publisher, so I expect it will come out the same quality as the comic collection, i.e. significantly more fantastic than a pdf read on a laptop screen.

The Stuff of Thought by Steven Pinker

This book is about the language of thought - how the mind frames concepts about the world internally. Pinker uses both psychology (mainly evolutionary) and linguistics to pick apart what the language of thought is comprised of. This approach is plausible, to the extent it works, but limited given our current state of knowledge. Still, there's plenty of Pinker's usual interesting psychological facts in here.

I found the first part of the book pretty hard going. It's fairly dense and dry, and the bulk of his thesis gets set out here. The second part is lighter, and significantly more readable, and has him applying the thesis to particular things - metaphor, swearing and the use of implication in speech.

Overall, a good read.

26 November 2008

Peter Wicked by Broos Campbell

The third Matty Graves novel. Campbell seems to have really hit his stride with the series - this one was the most enjoyable yet. Graves is a refreshingly down to earth character, quite a contrast to the more usual naval hero who is honourable to a fault. The picture drawn of the United States Navy's early days and the ad hoc foreign policies of colonies in the Carribbean are fascinating too.

19 November 2008

The Wolf Sea by Robert Low

I was very impressed with Low's first novel, The Whale Road, and this second one carries on in the same vein. It's rough and brutal, with a human side from our narrator's point of view. This story begins in Constantinople, with Orm losing the sword he got at the end of the first novel. The rest of the story involves his attempts to track it (and his old enemy Starkad) across the western Mediterranean, and trying to keep his Oathsworn alive and be a good jarl.

Overall, it's a fantastic adventure, and I'm left unhappy that I have to wait at least six months for the third novel.

13 November 2008

An Evil Guest by Gene Wolfe

In this novel, Wolfe gives us his take on Lovecraft. It's set in the future, and centers on an actress who gets involved in some strange goings on. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

There's a lot of fun to be had in working out what he is referring to obliquely (or not so obliquely, as with 'that darn squid god').

11 November 2008

Trail of Cthulhu: Additional

Session two of this went very well. This was more action than investigation oriented, with our brave academics confronting several deep ones behind the murders.

This gave us plenty of opportunity to test the combat and fleeing rules. These flow pretty well, and both have a good sense of the back and forward of scuffles and chases. Although coming very close to it, none of the investigators were killed (although one was seriously wounded). On the other hand, they didn't actually kill any monsters either.

After getting out of the ritual chamber (which the creatures did not seem keen to leave), they decided to dynamite the place closed and return to Arkham and ponder the discovery that something called a Cthulhu will wake when the stars are right, and that this is in about six months.

I got to have a lot of fun with the one character who has 'in the blood' as their drive, too. Good times.

02 November 2008

Flint & Silver by John Drake

I wasn't especially optimistic about the idea of a prequel to Treasure Island, but it is quite enjoyable. In his afterword, Drake says that he wanted to write the story so that he knew their history. He also has written the book for adults rather than teenagers. It's been many years since I read Treasure Island, so I'm sure I missed a bunch of stuff, but it was still a good adventure story. Long John Silver is the hero, and Drake paints an almost believable portrait of a honourable man who becomes a pirate, and how he leads a crew to be less brutal than they might otherwise. He also has to deal with Flint, a treacherous psychopath who is probably just as unrealistic a pirate in the other direction.

A good read. There is to be a second volume, as well, but I think I might re-read the inspiring work again next.

29 October 2008

De Blob

This is one of the most fun games I've played on the Wii. It has style, wit and gleeful anarchy in play (and even more so in the story that frames it).

So. Play. You are a round blob with a funny expression, and you can soak up paint and then paint things by bouncing against them. The controls are fairly simple - nunchuk stick to guide you, flick the remote to jump, Z to target things (paintbots, bad guys, buttons, etc) to jump on them. It's basically a platform game, with the added bonus of letting you splatter paint over a blank city however you like. Each level is huge (taking an hour or so to complete) and there are a bunch of challenges - little timed tasks - that give you extra points. Some of these also stop bad guys spawning, or get rid of dangerous black ink. All good, with the exception of jumping from building to building, which is supposed to be useful and give you bonus points, except instead it is utterly random where you end up.

This is all wrapped in a glorious piece of utterly mad story. The facistic inkies have taken over the city, removing all the colour via paintbot and trapped all the inhabitants in gray suits. You are a jungle dwelling blob, recruited by the colour resistance (a few other blobby characters) to strike back. The cutscenes that start each level, and some of the story-related tasks in game, are hilarious. Best quote: "They have forced all the musicians to become accountants!" The craziness is included everywhere - the way that major buildings get redesigned when you take them back, the patterns that you can pick up to make your painting more varied, the musical stings that play when you paint something, and so on.

The multiplayer modes seem quite fun too, although so far I have only played them with my daughter, so I'm not sure how they will work when ruthless competition is active. There's no reason they wouldn't be - the competitive painting one at least was pretty neat. Also, on the topic of kid-friendliness, once you have completed a level, it can be opened in 'free paint' mode, lacking all enemies and objectives. This is a bit hit with her.

Battle Fleet by Paul Dowsell

Starts kind of weak, but once it gets going this is a great adventure story. A lot of thinking about life and death. This is number three in the series, I think I'll need to look up the earlier ones too (although from mention in this one of plot happenings, I'm not sure whether they will be consistently as good as this one).

26 October 2008

Geiger Counter: Total Eclipse

This game ran at the Fright Night 2 convention, 25 October 2008.

There were seven total in the group, some with almost no experience playing games with this much shared narration, and one person who hadbeen considering running it himself. As we got into brainstorming the film, things went smoothly right from the beginning. I had prepared some basic ideas - basically enough to guide where it went, or act as a fallback if people were short on ideas. This was plenty, especially as the game had been sold as an Aliens-inspired survival horror, which had everyone thinking in that mode to start with.

As we began to define the menace (a nano-machine based, infectious meme-complex) and setting (an asteroid mining facility with a population of about 13000), things really took off. The characters were a great selection of people from all over the facility, plus a couple of outsiders (a mining barge pilot and a military auditor). Inside we had a black market fixer, a prostitute, a soldier and an engineer. Relationships between all these characters quickly complicated things in a very satisfying manner.

Putting together the trailer was like a light version of the scene framing that comes up later, and I felt that it really helped get people into the right space this game. Also, I think we got almost everything from the trailer into the film - maybe we cut some of the exact quotes from the Colonel, but the spirit of the thing was there.

Once the film itself began, things just rocked along. The pacing seemed to work naturally, with everyone in pretty much the same space about how much horror to show in their scenes, and making an effort to include characters that hadn't had a scene, or waiting before returning to characters in trouble. I'd put together a soundtrack with a mishmash of spooky film scores and a few Darkest of the Hillside Thickets songs, and this managed to give us some appropriate music several times, and (even better) a few interesting contrasts... one was a kind of jazzy, romantic theme that came up just as things were beginning to fall apart.

We began losing characters as the menace got to eight dice (the first when it reached 7 or 8). Things began getting very tense as the nano-memes began infecting the whole complex. As their stories began to play out, we had some great subplots. The soldier shot the Colonel, and made a run for it, trying to rescue both his girlfriend and the working girl without them finding out about each other. By coincidence, those two were working together to escape to the very end. There were a few other subplots going on too, and they all got resolved satisfactorily (in a horror movie sense - the two-timer got his in the hangar bay as one of the women escaped in a rescue ship, for example). The barge pilot, was the other survivor, taking the ship out while getting her revenge on the (now meme-infected) Colonel who had wrecked her navy career, as they blew up the mining colony on the way out.

There were loads of great cinematic moments, too. Two characters who we thought we dead returned for some extra scenes, spaceships crashing, pursuit through tunnels and across the surface of an asteroid, the giant machinery that was crushing and cutting minerals out, and so on.

Overall, a fantastic game, and very smooth to run. This beta is noticeably more straightforward than the previous draft, used for my test run a few months back.

The Accidental Time Machine by Joe Haldeman

A good, kind of relaxed, kind of a modern take on H G Wells' Time Machine. I don't want to say much about the story, as discovering it as you go is part of the enjoyment. Just read it.

24 October 2008

Nation by Terry Pratchett

A bit of a change of pace, but very good. This book isn't set on the Discworld, and it's generally more serious than those books. However, the general message of practicality in difficult situations and the efficacy of science over supersitition is about as good as the message in any young adult novel.

23 October 2008

Cowboy Angels by Paul McAuley

A fantastic read. Much more techno-thriller than science fiction, although the science fiction is fairly critical to the plot ('cowboy angels' are black ops agents trained to infiltrate alternate worlds). The story ends up being very human - the hero is a retired agent, reactivated to try and bring an old friend back in. The one thing that seemed to run through it was his determination to do the right thing - not just his duty, but the right thing for the people around him too.

The friend has been murdering alternate copies of the same woman in different worlds. As we get further and further into the plots and counterplots, things stay exciting. That keeps up all the way to the last paragraph.

The way that the alternate worlds fit together, and how the one that invented the technology to travel to others deals with it is fascinating too. The technology was invented in the USA and they used it to help out alternate, and less fortunate, Americas. A lot of that help is trade, of course, so they enriched themselves too. He shows several different facets of these interactions (including with our own world, in which they are acting covertly).

21 October 2008

Under Enemy Colors by S Thomas Russell

A new Napoleonic naval series, about a Royal Navy Lieutenant who is of mixed English and French parentage. Russell uses this to provide a new spin on the utter loyalty to the British Crown that is usual in these stories.

This story concerns itself with his time as first lieutenant under perhaps the most tyrannical and cowardly captain conceivable. The military actions seem generally less stressful than just dealing with the captain under day to day life.

I look forward to further episodes in Lt Hayden's story. There's a lot of potential here - perhaps to be as good as O'Brian?

17 October 2008

The House of the Stag by Kage Baker

Another fantasy novel set in the same world as The Anvil of the World. Starts rather more seriously, but as the book goes on it becomes more like the first one. Very good.

16 October 2008

War Reporting for Cowards by Chris Ayres

This is the memoir of basically a fairly normal journalist who seems to have kind of accidentally agreed to be an embedded journalist in the 2003 Iraq invasion. He's funny - mainly self-deprecating - and his view on things is a different perspective compared to war correspondents. The book's not just about that time, either. He talks about things that led towards the experience - his history as a journalist and his experience in New York when the World Trade Centre attacks occurred, mainly.

Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley

I thought I'd read some of Mosley's stuff, on the grounds that it is generally recommended. This one's certainly a good hard-boiled novel. Easy Rawlins is an interesting detective too - in this first story, he's a recently fired factory worker and takes on the detective work essentially at random.

Once it gets going, the usual sort of violence and chaos surrounds him. The one thing that was perhaps too much are the terrible revelations that in the end lie beneath everything - and they sure are terrible.

14 October 2008

Trail of Cthulhu - Some Actual Play

We played the first episode of our was Nemesis, now Trail of Cthulhu, game last night.

The 1932 Miskatonic University expedition to excavate a suspected lost city site in the Burmese highlands got off to a good start, although they had some trouble with 'deserting' local labourers. This took a turn for the more suspicious when one of them 'deserted' by being grabbed and dragged into the lake in broad daylight. A crocodile or large eel was suggested as the likely culprit, despite a lack of sightings of either type of creature in the area. Various clues were found, suggesting that the city was many thousands of years older than expected, that a nearby hostile village might be comprised of survivors of the 800 year old suppression of the city, and so forth.

In the third week of digging they broke into an underground chamber, that appeared to be a sealed annex to the temple complex, the entries since the city was razed. The upper chamber was richly decorated with grotesque frescoes depicting slaves or captives being devoured by the gods and inhabitants of the city. Our plucky heroes continued into the lower chamber, which contained a huge basalt altar and what appeared to be an underground exit to the sea (not the freshwater lake that it ought to connect to). We ended the session as the altar was found to contain the dismembered corpses of at least two people (quite possibly some or all of the missing labourers).

We only really gave a run to the investigative side of the rules, which worked very well. The sense of resource management was interesting. When I prompted players to make a spend in this or that, there was often a bit of thought - did it seem like extra info here was going to be more valuable than extra info later?

We didn't get into any fighting, although there were a few 'sense trouble' and 'stability' rolls to be made. In fact, if those sense trouble rolls had been successful, there would have been more action and possibly fewer missing labourers. In any case, the investigators have definitely alerted certain entities to their presence now and can expect a somewhat more exciting next session. Expect a report on how lethal the system is in two weeks!

07 October 2008

Deadly Shoals by Joan Druett

Another of the Wiki Coffin mysteries. Good. Coffin is perhaps a little too good at everything, though.

Incandescence by Greg Egan

A good story in the "strange alien society" type of science fiction. By far the most convoluted physics of any of his books, although that might just be my inability to mentally visualize the world of these aliens - if you follow the link, you will see that Egan has both an easy guide to how it works, and also a non-easy one with all the mathematics. I found the easy version kind of gave me a bit of an idea how it works, but not enough to really get it all. The story of the non-industrial aliens discovering general relativity is compelling, and the parallel story of a post-human and his companion who are searching for the world is good too. I liked it, but you'll need to be prepared to either seriously engage with the physics or skim past those bits to enjoy it.

05 October 2008

The Wisdom of Ravens by me

So, I wrote another game. It's strange, and I don't exactly know how it will play. But I was inspired by this Murderland game contest, and this is what came out. It is pretty much a role playing poem (albeit longer than most), which is a form that I find both intriuging and strange. Perhaps I'll have a chance to try it out soon, and see if it works.

The Martian General's Daughter by Theodore Judson

This story is about the final collapse of industrial civilization, in a little less than 300 years. The narrator is the illegitimate daughter of a General in an empire that grew out of the USA. The book reads very similarly to I, Claudius, and Judson uses some very obvious parallels to the decline of the Roman empire. The narrative switches back and forward between her childhood (under the last decent emperor) and a present in which her father finds himself caught in a struggle for the throne.

It's a compelling story, slowly revealing clues about how the world came to be that way and how the powerful empire collapses.

Very good indeed.

04 October 2008

In The Shadow Of The Moon

A documentary about the moon landings, based on interviews with the surviving astronauts who went there. It's comprised of cuts between them talking and archival footage related to what they're telling.


If A Pirate I Must Be... by Richard Sanders

This is a biography of the infamous pirate Bartholomew Roberts. In fact, it's a bit more general than that, as Sanders goes off on various tangents regarding pirate culture, the slave trade, and so on. Roberts' career as a pirate is a pretty good framework for this. Interesting, but mainly for anecdotal stuff (Sanders goes to many primary sources).

Trail of Cthulhu by Ken Hite

Essentially, this game takes everything good from Call of Cthulhu and substitutes a coherent system in place of the (to me) utterly terrible old Basic Role Play one. Hite's the perfect author to extract the best of Lovecraft's gameable ideas, too. His take on things is surprisingly fresh (especially his take on the great old ones - each described by a variety of possible explanations, not all of which are consistent).

The system, Robin Laws' GUMSHOE, is all about resource management instead of skill ratings. Investigative abilities will automatically provide characters with the crucial clues to a case (if you have a relevant ability). However, to get extra information you need to spend points. So if you just want to haul ass after the monster, that's free, but if you want to, say, find out how to best kill it, or how it was summoned, those might cost you. I didn't really have very high hopes of this part of the game, but it is actually done rather well. Combined with the advice on mystery construction, it makes a solid basis for playing adventures through.

The other side of the system is a task resolution bit to cover fighting, chases, and other hazards that you will find. You roll a plain old six sided die, aiming to beat a target number of 2-8. In order to boost your chances, you spend points from your ability pool before you roll. It looks like it will play quick and the combat is appropriately dangerous when fighting people and (given their abilities and special powers) absolutely lethal when fighting monsters.

Character generation is pretty good. Like Call of Cthulhu, you pick an occupation that gives you several abilities that are easier to develop. You also get one or two special features based on it, e.g. Doctors can get access to hospital records and so on. You also pick a drive - something that is behind your desire to investigate weirdness. These are a good selection. They have a mechanical affect too - they can be compelled like FATE Aspects, with the reward being increased Stability (more on this below). Finally, you drop a bunch of points on Investigative abilities and another bunch on your general abilities, giving you your point pools to spend on clues and roll bonuses.

The sanity system (perhaps insanity system is more appropriate) is slightly more nuanced than Call of Cthulhu as well. I gather this is because GUMSHOE includes rules for Stability - how well a character bears up in the face of traumatic events - but not for a descent into madness. Hite has essentially mashed them together. Characters are scored for their Stability and Sanity. Stability is used to cope with shocks, and can go up and down rapidly. Sanity goes only down, either when Stability is reduced to 0 by a Mythos encounter, or directly when encountering the most horrifying of creatures. It reads like it will work fine.

The bulk of the book is given over to the descriptions of mythos creatures, general background and advice for play. This is all really good stuff - the creature descriptions stand out, with an effort made to have them not just a list of monsters, but with suggestions to make them more interesting all the way through. The advice on building a campaign is likewise solid, with a lot of good ideas, and suggestions for running the game in many different ways (including totally improvised mysteries). There's also markers throughout the book of rules, concepts and so forth that suit either 'Purist' or 'Pulp' style games. These seem to be well selected, and allow for a continuum of styles from one end to the other, depending on your choices of which to use.

Overall, a very nice Lovecraft game. I look forward to running it - which will happen soon, as I was about to run such a game using Nemesis, but Trail of Cthulhu just beat it for that position.

27 September 2008

Four Days In June by Iain Gale

A novel about the battle of Waterloo, from the points of view of several people in various armies. Good, although every now and again it feels more like a history lecture than a nove.

26 September 2008

Escapement by Jay Lake

This follows on from Mainspring, with further adventures in an alternate universe that is clockwork. It's a much more fun novel. I think that's partly because - the world established - there is less concern with describing how things are there. Also the stories (it follows three different characters this time) are more interesting than Hethor's quest was.

14 September 2008

Generation Kill by Evan Wright

An interesting look at (some of) the people on the front lines in the American military. Wright was an embedded journalist with the Marine First Recon Battalion, and the book recounts what he saw and heard in the invasion of Iraq. It's fairly hostile to the higher ranked officers (perhaps unfairly - via wikipedia I found a rebuttal to the book, with differing accounts on many of the events in the book). This seems likely to be because Wright was with the same small group of mainly enlisted men. In any case, it's still a great read, especially for the portraits he paints of some of the soldiers.

08 September 2008

The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod

A near future police thriller, dealing with a world that has moved into profound rejection of religion after the current 'War on Terror' just got worse and worse, and religion got blamed. The novel is all about themes around robot consciousness and religion versus rationalism, with the investigation into a murder as the plot. Good stuff, as you can expect from MacLeod, although it feels strangely more relaxed than usual (strange because the events in the story are anything but relaxing).

Also slightly jarring is the fact that some of the action takes place in New Zealand, and MacLeod has got a few things just slightly wrong - nothing that really matters, just a few things that aren't quite right (the bird is a 'tui' not a 'tui-tui'; fantails don't really hang out in flocks; etc).

07 September 2008

Houses of the Blooded by John Wick

I grabbed the pdf of this due to Wick temporarily dropping the price to USD$5. I'd thought it looked a bit too similar to Greg Stolze's Reign to look at in much detail before. I was wrong... well, kind of. It is similar in many ways, but the emphasis and mechanics are very different.

Everyone in Houses is member of the aristocracy of a passionate race of created beings called ven. They're basically humans with certain drives turned up to 11. They live in the ruins of the people who created them, and they're slowly re-taming their lands. The game is about the lives of these nobles, in epic tragedies. There's rules for vendettas, romantic affairs (kind of like the tradition of courtly love) and for building up your domains (or taking over those of others).

The domain rules are a basic framework that everything else fits into. Each season, the nobles will arrange the production of their lands and order their vassals to do this and that. It is also expected that each player character will play out 1-3 stories or adventures in more detail. This side of the game also brings in a huge number of non player characters - rival nobles, vassals, spouses - who will increasingly entangle the lives of the player characters.

Some details of the mechanics that are interesting:

  • Rolls are made to win control of narration, not to determine success or failure. 
  • Players can elect to hold back dice they are entitled to roll to allow them a greater degree of success, with a lower chance.
  • Uses a more limited version of Aspects (from FATE 3.0 as seen in Spirit of the Century). Instead of being able to be used whenever they are appropriate, each one has specific triggers to allow it to be invoked for yourself, tagged by someone else, or compelled by the gamemaster.
  • Detailed rules for duels (when a Revenge or vendetta has been called), with some neat stuff in the different maneuvers available.
  • Detailed rules for Romance, covering everything from the initial flirtation to when it all ends in tears, heartbreak and possibly bloodshed.
  • Lots of cool stuff you can do in your domain. E.g. raise a secret army; explore a ruin of the old sorcerer kings; throw a party; write an opera; build a city; fight off monsters in untamed lands.
Overall, a very cool system that I hope to play with my group soon. I think we'd have great fun with it in the epic mode (tragedy with buckets of blood, like Hamlet or Macbeth). 

How to Host a Dungeon by Tony Dowler

This is a strange kind of thing... it's a solo game kind of thing, designed to create interesting dungeons for use in dunegeon-crawl rpgs. Basically, you work your way through various different ages, and the game tells you how things get organised.

It's really fun! That's the key bit. I've run through three dungeons now, one with the free version and two with the non-free. In each, there's certainly been a bunch of cool stuff that would make for a fun campaign. There's a lot of randomness that determines what happens in the dungeon, i.e. which monsters colonise which part and so on. There's also a series of events that each of the monsters will try each turn... dwarves will mine, dragons will hunt for food, etc. As time goes on, the humans living on the surface might even send expeditions or adventurers into the dungeon.

Dowler has come up with some great, evocative stuff in how the different groups behave, and the result dungeons have all been interesting - the results of all the events in the previous ages certainly give a lot of character to things! For example, one of mine ended up with a rich ettin lairing in the now-abandoned remains of an ancient demonic soul mill... nice food for describing in play!

Currently all my dungeons were on A4 paper (due to a lack of anything bigger) but yesterday I got myself an A3 pad, and I'm looking forward to playing again with a less cramped space (I think that may have led to my other dungeons 'finishing' quicker than they otherwise might have).

There's a nice example of how it works going on in a group dungeon making thread on story games, too.

02 September 2008

Renegade's Magic by Robin Hobb

A very nice conclusion to the Soldier's Son trilogy. Unfortunately it is extremely long, as Hobb indulges in a great deal of descriptive prose and her protagonist engages in rather a lot of introspection. However, those aren't enough to detract from an interesting story, and a surprisingly nuanced fantasy exploration of the clash of cultures. Neither the colonialist invaders, the conquered nomads, or the state-of-nature forest people are, in the end, any better or worse than each other. This acceptance that people are just people and that every group makes mistakes, does terrible things, and does good things is somewhat rare in fiction (especially fantasy).

Saturn's Children by Charles Stross

This novel is up to Stross' usual standard. It follows the adventures of a bored sexbot, lost in a world in which all the humans died out (leaving her, and all the other robots, with no particular purpose). As the story goes on, it goes deeper into the reasons that the post-human society is like it is.

Man of Honour by Iain Gale

The first Jack Steel novel, read out of order. It was not quite as good as Rules of War, but still a solid adventure story.

19 August 2008

Solving Stonehenge by Anthony Johnson

The first half of this is a history of the study of Stonehenge, which is fairly interesting.

The second half is really interesting. Johnson decided to work out how the builders designed Stonehenge, and this book describes his attempts to work out how the various parts were positioned, using only techniques that would have been available at the time (i.e. pegs and ropes). Pretty cool stuff.

On top of that, it's a coffee table book with lots of nice pictures.

The King's Gold by Arturo Perez-Reverte

Next of the Alatriste novels. It is a very good one! Plenty of action and intrigue, and in this one Inigo is coming of age, and thus playing a bigger part in the adventures he's chronicling.

The Ordinary by Jim Grimsley

Kinda interesting science fiction with some fantasy elements that seem like they are really sufficiently advanced technology. The story is about what happens when a future human society decides to try and push into the 'fantasy' type world that appears to be a pocket universe or something. Lots of neat stuff, but the end didn't really resolve enough to be satisfying for me. I understand there's a sequel, maybe that will have the resolution in it.

09 August 2008

A History of Japan by Kenneth Henshall

A fairly shallow, yet still very interesting, history of Japan. Recommended if, like me, you have only the broadest ideas of Japanese history.

A Company of Spears by Allan Mallinson

Another of the Hervey series, one that I missed, having read the one immediately after it already. It's good. This series really stands out just for Hervey's inner life - the way he tries to deal with the various irrationalities of his life and situation.

05 August 2008

3:16 Actual Play & Review

I played another game, with a much more satisfying pace, and plenty of time for the characters to interact with each other and the extras.

On the strength of that, here's a real review rather than just a mention of play.

3:16 Carnage Amongst the Stars has you playing a group of space troopers. They've volunteered to join the force, with a mission of killing everything that might potentially threaten Terra at some point (i.e. all alien life).

The game is pretty simple, but hugely evocative. There's a little bit of tactical positioning in combat, with a nifty list of weapons to choose from. Character generation takes about five minutes (if you take time to explain everything as you go).

Play is mission based, with each mission requiring the troopers to cleanse a planet of hostile lifeforms. The GM gets a pool of tokens to allocate to the combat encounters (and sometimes spend on alien special abilities), which gives you some tactical play there too.

The real core of play, however, is the troopers' attitude to their job. This also gets fleshed out by the flashback mechanics - each trooper has a limited number of strength and weakness flashbacks. These can be used to get yourself out of difficulty in combat, but when you use one you have to explain your memory and thus illustrate how it helps you in the present situation. This is the real character generation, where your trooper's personality gets fleshed out.

Combat is also fairly lethal - I'd expect most campaigns to lose a few troopers along the way. This 'life is cheap' vibe runs through a lot of the game too (e.g. weapons don't have a damage rating, they have a 'kills per round' rating - and it goes up to d100).

The between mission character development allows people to improve, but aspects of this are arbitrary. The big one is levelling up - two troopers get to level up each time: the one who made the most kills goes first, then everyone rolls off to be the second.

For the GM, there's almost no prep - roll or pick from a few tables to generate the next planet and alien abilities, and off you go. Taking more time helps, but if necessary you can play with no time spent.

All that stuff ends up being a very tightly focused game, simple to play but (I expect, over campaign play) also the potential for some really good play about dealing with being in a stupid, terrible and endless war.

Regarding my second game, there's not too much to say. I spent a lot more time describing details of the setting, so the Force had more of a character to it, and the planets (we managed one long and one quick mission) were somewhat more thought out and consistent. I only had two players, as well, which added focus. Their adversity was tougher than my first games too - both missions I picked a high ability rating for the aliens, and this made a big difference to the sense of danger in combat. I'm also looking forward to running a game with my full group there, as the rest of them will have to play green replacements for the squad, which now has a pair of fairly battle hardened NCOs.

Speaking of which, I thoroughly recommend the technique of creating a squad to back the player characters, and brutally killing the extras off as you go. Even knowing that I was doing this arbitrarily for narrative effect, I got the sense that they really wanted to keep their guys alive.

03 August 2008

Actual Play: 3:16

So, I inflicted my first run of 3:16 on a group of four at the ConFusion one-day convention yesterday.

We played with fairly minimal roleplaying and reflection, and a breakneck pace, which was not ideal. However, that was the mood of the group, and everyone had a great time. We got through four missions in the session, which seems pretty insane*. I'll definitely try and keep things moving more slowly in future games, giving some moments of reflection rather than just things that moved the mission forward.

In terms of the rules, they delivered on all the fun in play that reading suggested would be there. We had some great positioning debates, people raging as they got placed at the ideal range for someone else's weapon, and so on. There was jubilation when someone scored 93 kills with their heavy MG, scorn when the crazy corporal blew up teammates with a grenade a second - and third - time.

Despite the pace of the game, we managed to touch all the parts of the rules. Playing multiple missions gave us a chance to develop the characters, and we had some promotions too. There was also good use of flashbacks. A few were of the obvious, but not so interesting sort: "I spent extra time practising X because of an early failure." However, some were golden. My favorites were a related strength and weakness flashbacks from the same character on the same mission - both dealing with his childhood adventures with his brothers in the woods back home.

In tone, ours was fairly light. However, they got hit pretty hard early on so everyone was aware how close trooper death could be, giving that edge to the proceedings. I'd like to try a game that's more on the grim end of the spectrum, too.

In any case, great game. If the idea of space troopers killing aliens has any kind of appeal to you at all, get this game.

* It helped that I rolled so badly for the aliens on this final world that they never scored a kill on anyone. Worst poisonous killer newts ever.

Implied Spaces by Walter Jon Williams

A very good, but hard to describe novel. Starting in a fantasy world - one that will be hilariously familiar to players of MMORPGs - we follow a chap who implies there is a lot more going on. He helps to defeat some dark priests and that leads on to crazier and crazier stuff as we get to find out what is going on.

It's not quite a post-singularity novel, but the things that have led to the world that Williams describe certainly changed things for humanity a great deal. For more detail, read the novel.

30 July 2008

The Line of Polity by Neal Asher

This is a decent space opera. It has some silly bits, but the overall plot is exciting. The thing that I found most interesting was the idea of the Polity. It felt kind of like Banks' Culture, but in the very early years. People talk about the way the Polity has given over all government and logistics to their AIs, but it seems like this is quite recent. This means they're a local superpower, but only local.

The novel is centered around attempts to get the Polity to step in and 'fix' a world that is ruled by a terrible theocracy, so it plays with these issues a lot. Good stuff.

26 July 2008

Rules of War by Iain Gale

This is second in a series that reads like Gale is essentially trying to replicate the style of the Sharpe books (in a different age). Jack Steel, his hero, is similar to Sharpe in many ways although from a middle-class family rather than a workhouse orphan. He also predates Sharpe by a hundred years - this book is about Marlborough's campaign against Louis XIV in Belgium.

The story follows the historical military adventure formula, so there's not much unexpected in there. Gale writes well enough that this isn't a bad thing, and Steel has a streak of compassion (particularly when the city of Ostend is bombarded by the Royal Navy) that is unusual.

I'm interested to see where the series goes (and find that first novel).

Spider Star by Mike Brotherton

This is a science fiction novel with a very cool world. The story deals with some humans dealing with an ancient technology (including an expedition to find the makers and learn to turn it off). It reminds me of the Ringworld books, although the scale of the engineering is even bigger.

The characters were interesting too, with a contrast between a retired explorer, now family man, and up and coming explorer in shared command of the mission.

The story leaves a lot of the facts about the world implicit, only explaining those that the characters come to understand along the way. This feels quite natural.

22 July 2008

Geiger Counter - The Cylinder

(You're supposed to read 'The Cylinder' in ominous movie voice).

I took the playtest draft of Geiger Counter for a one-shot last night, as I was thinking of running a game at this year's Fright Night halloween convention. I'm also interested to see the similarities and differences with The Infected, given that they have pretty similar aims.

Overall, it was a lot of fun, with some good action/horror moments and a satisfying ending (with the villain of the piece escaping alive, and the rest left dead on the eponymous cylinder). I'm happy with it for my convention game, too.

The contrast with The Infected is basically characterization versus action. Infected focuses much more on character, Geiger Counter really seemed to make the actions to survive primary.

I really liked the way that quick scenes taken in turns really kept things going. Scenes that took more than about five minutes felt like they were dragging, which is fairly telling about the pace of things.

Drawing the map as you go was great too. Ours was a science fiction story, with humans exploring a huge alien cylinder. It quickly turned to chaos, with the entire artifact waking up hostile to the humans, as well as the things that lived inside it. The various groups trapped inside the cylinder did their best to fight off the menace and escape.

The conditions added a lot to the story too - there's a discrete list of things that can affect you after you lose a conflict - you can be injured or dead, but also lost, alone, hysterical, etc. Each has its own narrative effects and having these come into play added a lot of colour to the story.

Overall, the playtest draft delivered 100% on what it promised. I'm looking forward to the final version.

19 July 2008

The Path Of Revenge & Dark Heart by Russell Kirkpatrick

Reviewing these two together as I read them together. This series takes place seventy years after his previous trilogy. The story is driven by fallout from the events in the previous story, and also opens up the world significantly. It's interesting, and the novel thinks a bit more about the whys and wherefores of the events than the average (or even superior) fantasy novel. On the down side, there are some truly horrible atrocities committed in the course of events which are fairly hard to get through.

One aspect that I particularly liked is an exploration of the role of a dark lord (the adversary from the previous trilogy), and how his brutal methods of control over his empire may be necessary or superior to more gentle governance. That said, it's far from an apology for him which might be an easier way to play this sort of thing in a story).

Another thing I find puzzling is the maps. Kirkpatrick is a cartographer, so the maps are wonderfully made (plausible geography and professional quality). Despite this, they all seem to miss out the most important things I want a map for: the journeys that the characters take. I think maybe the nicest looking ones have been chosen, rather than the most illustrative.

Sixty Days And Counting by Kim Stanley Robinson

(I kept putting off this because I hadn't quite worked out what I wanted to say. It is apparent now that I don't know).

Anyhow, number three in the climate change series. It's good.

It's an odd combination of disaster story (i.e. what will happen if we fail to act) and optimistic one (i.e. we can save ourselves, if good people make the effort). Plus there's some basic family and romantic drama for the main characters.

05 July 2008

Casino Royale

Finally got around to watching this, and immediately regretted not doing so earlier. Very good, and feels a lot closer to the Bond I remember from the novels than the other films. Now looking forward to the next one (even though it has a silly name).

Fifty Degrees Below by Kim Stanley Robinson

The second of Robinson's climate change novels. Good. More comments will follow soon, once I finish the third one.

26 June 2008

Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of an Empire by Simon Baker

This book is companion to a BBC series, and takes portraits of seven people as a way to get at the Roman empire's history. Most are people who I already knew a fair bit about, but the way that Baker draws ideas from the individual lives to the bigger story of Rome is good. Plus, there are a few who I hadn't come across before, such as Alaric (he's in there as the Goth king who finally disestablished the western emperor).

21 June 2008

The Year 1000 by Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger

A light, but enjoyable read. Taking a 1020 calendar to give it some structure, the authors take us through the life in eleventh century Britain month by month. There's a lot of good stuff in there, although the fact that the authors are journalists rather than historians shows.

Radio Freefall by Matthew Jarpe

A first novel that shows a certain amount of potential but doesn't really come through on it. The main story is about a rock star who uses a technology to create certain moods in his audience. However, the story ends up with him saving the entire world from tyranny, in a series of not terribly plausible steps. The characters are all supremely great at everything that they try, which gets a little tedious, too.

12 June 2008

The Omega Expedition by Brian Stableford

The final of the emortality series, this one is focused on the unfreezing of Adam Zimmerman, a legendary character mentioned through all the other books. He made vast sums of money in the 21st century and created the Ahsauerus Foundation, the people who eventually created the true emortality technology. In this story, they are finally fulfilling their purpose, and reviving his frozen body to remake him as an emortal.

Of course, things don't go to plan.

The story of Zimmerman's return and what follows is told by Madoc Tamlin, one of the characters from Inherit The Earth. Mortimer Gray, from The Fountains of Youth, plays a big part too. The other stories are woven in too, but not so significantly.

Overall, it's a nice end for the series. The world's too complicated for everything to look simple and happy in the rest of Stableford's fourth millenium, but there's at least hope, and the way the Zimmerman deals with his resurrection makes a good epilog.

Dark Ararat by Brian Stableford

This is the colony story thrown into the emortality series. I enjoyed it more the second time through, although it's still a little odd compared to the others. It still suffers - like most colony stories - from a rather contrived ecology, but in the context of the development of the technologies of emortality I can see why he put this chapter in.

02 June 2008

The First World War by John Keegan

Very good history of the war. Keegan has a great writing style, so that the book is compelling to read (very rare in histories!). It is also, inevitably, sobering and depressing due to the subject. Keegan makes a point of exploring the lead up to the war, the decisions that triggered it, and (briefly) the consequences.

31 May 2008

Mouse Guard: Fall 1152 by David Petersen

This is a strange sort of graphic novel. I got a copy after reading a lot of positive stuff about it here and there, and also reading about the in-development roleplaying game based on it.

So, it's about medieval mice. They have a whole little medieval republic, with villages, blacksmiths and what have you. The main characters are members of the Mouse Guard, a kind of military order charged with guiding mice between towns and protecting them from predators.

It reads sort of like a fantasy story - more like that than a historical adventure - because the other creatures that the mice fight are in effect monsters for them. The story is fast-paced, dealing with a mouse traitor and our heroes discovering what is going on about that. It feels very short, very much just the first chapter of a bigger story (annoying, as the second volume is not due until the end of the year and there are four promised).

The biggest strength is the art, which is absolutely fantastic. The world of these mice is brought vividly to life, together with the scale of things they have to deal with (such as a snake in the first part). The fights look great, too. A lot of things that seem rather silly if described in words, but the art pretty much makes them work.


I really enjoyed this. It was a great take on a giant monster movie, and the thread of the character stories that tied it together added a compelling human side to the whole thing.

I can see why people found parts of it implausible, but overall it seemed to me like these elements were necessary to the story. The tale of the people who just evacuate to safety right at the beginning is not interesting, even if these people's attempt to save someone else in the disaster zone is absolutely crazy.

Also, I'm glad I saw it on video. I think the constant motion of the camera would have been terrible at the cinema.

Various Hellboy stuff

I'm looking forward to the second Hellboy film, so this week I've rather immersed myself in Hellboy media.

I rewatched the first film, and enjoyed it. I'm not sure about all the decisions they made but they certainly nailed the look and feel of the comics just right. From the shorts I've seen, the second looks like it will be better.

BPRD comics: The Dead, The Black Flame, The Universal Machine and The Garden of Souls. I'd read just a few of these, mainly borrowing a random selection of the monthly comics. Reading the whole of the stories, and in order, was a big improvement. The Black Flame and The Garden of Souls stood out, building up the mythology of Hellboy/BPRD in the former and Abe's history in the latter. Great stuff.

Hellboy: The Troll Witch and Others is a selection of Hellboy stories from his past, like The Chained Coffin and Others. Some really fun ones in here, although I find the collections a little of a letdown compared to the stories that move the story along.

Last Stand At Majuba Hill by John Wilcox

This is the fourth Simon Fonthill novel. It's good, but not as good as the third. Some of the characters and parts felt a little forced in this one.

Exploring Prehistoric Europe by Chris Scarre

Half coffee table book, half travel book. It covers fifteen important prehistoric sites in Europe, with a good discussion of why they are important and review of what is known about them.

26 May 2008

In A Wicked Age As A Player

This week, one of the other members of the group gave GMing a shot, so I got to experience In A Wicked Age as a player. Compared to most games, the difference is not so huge. The game felts pretty similar, just replacing one set of things to think about (what scene next? which NPC to throw at the PCs?) with another (now what do I do to get what I want?)

I had a lot of fun, with my character (Omid, the Strongest Man in the World!) pulling in a combined win/loss that was really neat - he got exhausted out of the chapter in the same conflict in which he finally won his love. Omid's going to be back a couple more times, too.

25 May 2008

The Merchants' War by Charles Stross

Number four in the merchant princes, this one moves along pretty fast and with a lot of excitement. There's a lot of plotlines, making it a little hard to follow until you remember who everyone was. Probably this one will reward rereading just after the first three. The setup for the next one is pretty good too, I'm looking forward to it.

24 May 2008

Matter by Iain M Banks

I really enjoyed this novel. The cover blurb calls it a Culture novel, but really it's about people on a low tech world, with only one main character part of the Culture (and she came from the same world as the others originally anyway).

The story explores the place of the low tech people in Banks' galaxy, driven along by a plot about local politics and some machinations of other factions that are intertwined with it.

One other major plus is that it didn't have any of the kind of fascinated description of horrific acts that many of his earlier stories did.

18 May 2008

The Quest for Origins by K R Howe

A good overview of what the current opinions are on the way the Polynesians colonized the Pacific Ocean. Howe also covers historical and alternative (i.e. crazy) opinions on the same topic. The book is an easy and short read, and packs a lot of information in there. There's a little bit of a New Zealand focus (probably as Howe is a New Zealander, plus he mentions it as especially interesting in that it's the most recently inhabited piece of the world).

16 May 2008

The Cassandra Complex by Brian Stableford

Although this is the fourth of the novels in the emortality series, it comes first in time. It's set about 2040 and deals with a mystery to do with early research into the technologies, against a background of the beginning of what the later stories call 'the Crash'.

The story here is more interesting for what it informs of the later stories than on its own. Specifically, some of the twists and turns get pretty implausible by the end. Of course the mystery is really there to highlight issues about the human reluctance to deal with things (such as population growth and climate change).

15 May 2008

The Fountains of Youth by Brian Stableford

This is the centrepiece of the emortality series, and was the one that I remember most strongly from my previous read of the books.

It's an autobiography of Mortimer Gray, one of the first generation of true emortals. Although his life takes many twists and turns over the five or six centuries that the book covers, the thread that runs through is his work writing a history of death.

This allows Stableford to blend the story of Gray's life with his commentary on how people of the past (including us, obviously) dealt with the omnipresence of death. This is interesting stuff, too, and a hell of a lot more deep and thoughtful than most science fiction.

In the background is the huge scope of future history that Stableford has built these books on. This world-building is, to my mind, a lot more plausible than most. There are a few places in which massive, implausible (or unlikely) events occur, but I find that the way he describes society reacting to them feels right. For instance (this will come up more in my review of the next book) the almost totally ineffectual reaction to the climate and (in his world) population crises of the twenty first century.

A great piece of work. Read it.

10 May 2008

The Architects of Emortality by Brian Stableford

This is the second volume in Stableford's future history of emortality. This one is set at the cusp of change, when the first true emortals (i.e. humans who will not age) are coming into their own, and those with around two centuries assisted life are very conscious they are the last generation of humans who will die of old age.

The story is framed as the investigation into a bizarre murder, and is just as gripping the second time around (perhaps mainly because I'd forgotten the reasons for it all).

The Golden Compass (film)

I finally got around to watching this on dvd. I enjoyed it - it seemed to be a good adaptation to me. The screenplay was perhaps a little heavy handed at times but overall it kept faithful to the story as written. The visuals brought to life Lyra's world very effectively, too.

08 May 2008

Iron Man

This film has pretty much no surprises but is good for what it is.

Robert Downey Jr makes Stark his own, and it's his charisma and humour that really carry the film. The suit is good too, and the fights. The plot is both shallow and easy to ignore.

As an interesting note, this film lacks any shaky fake hand held camera work. The fights are traditional, and you get to see everything happening in it's full glory.

Inherit the Earth by Brian Stableford

Due to a dearth of other interesting looking books at the library last visit, I grabbed the first four of Stableford's emortality series to re-read. If you haven't come across them, they deal with the development of life-extending and ultimately aging-prevention technologies and the way that these affect human society over the next few thousand years.

This is the first, and was just as good as I remembered it being. Knowing what comes after, the events in this one are overshadowed by that future history, which adds a sort of evanescence to the characters and events.

06 May 2008

A Traveller's Guide To Mars by William Hartmann

This book has the form factor and layout of a typical travel guide, which is a neat gimmick. Inside is a really interesting, detailed explanation of what we know about Mars, up to 2003 or so (when it was written). It also has a fantastic selection of photos, many from the Mars Global Surveyor.

Hartmann takes a tour by region, in each one telling you a little more about what we know (or speculate). The tour covers areas of interest - both the obvious places to laypeople (e.g. Olympus Mons) and those that are geologically important. He starts with the oldest parts of the planet and works his way to the youngest, overall.

The Sword-Edged Blonde by Alex Bledsoe

This is a hard-boiled fantasy novel. The tough-talking swordsman hero is great, and the mystery he must solve (bringing up dark memories of his past) is entirely the sort of thing you might expect. It works surprisingly well (and in many ways better than the Dresden Files).

01 May 2008

Forest Mage by Robin Hobb

I wasn't particularly taken with the first book in this trilogy, but this second volume gives back all that was promised in that story. Possibly as good as the Farseer trilogy, recommended for those who like good fantasy stories.

This one also takes all the seemingly straightforward cultures of the first book and shows enough of each that they take on a lot more depth (and, at the end of the day, they all seem terrible). The protagonist spends the whole novel stuck between two of them, being required by both to destroy the other. He does not have an easy time (which I guess is pretty standard for Hobb - she's very nasty to her characters).

29 April 2008

Actual Play Update: In A Wicked Age...

I haven't been making updates on this for each chapter (we seem to manage exactly a chapter per session). The game is still bringing some great play each time, and we're getting the rules down well too, which helps enormously.

The way that recurring characters develop is interesting - we have one in particular who is becoming more and more evil each chapter she appears in. Lucky for everyone else she's not going to be back for a while after last chapter (in which she was harvesting souls).

I'm also looking forward to next session, as I'll be taking a turn as a player, and sharing the GMing around. It will be interesting to see how it feels from the other side.

Updated opinion on the game: Not just recommended, mandatory!

Game Chef: Complete

I had fun with this, and I feel like the game I created has a good solid core in there. I also think it's pretty likely that playtesting will show that the mechanics are totally unbalanced between the three character types and need to be severely tweaked. Still, I'm more happy with this than my other designs.

It's a game about revolutionaries in a world with three strange societies, all in decline. Characters compete to be the one to reshape it all to match their ideals. Possibly for the better.

If you are interested, you may have a read.

26 April 2008

Night's Sorceries by Tanith Lee

The final of the Flat Earth stories, this one interweaves the previous two books, telling other stories that interrelate with Ahzrhiaz's story. It's good, including some of the funniest stories in the sequence.

19 April 2008

Delerium's Mistress by Tanith Lee

Continuing the Flat Earth stories. This one is a lot more of a traditional novel than the others, all about one character and her life. There's a certain freshness to the fantastic elements too. Good!

14 April 2008

Gogol Bordello (A strange music discovery)

So, I came across these guys via Boing Boing and was extremely impressed by what I heard. On Saturday I tracked down their latest album and have been listening to that quite a lot since then.

They call themselves gypsy punks which seems to sum it up pretty well. It is fun, loud, and very very funny stuff.

Here are some of their songs on youtube:
Start Wearing Purple
Wonderlust King

More Wicked Age

We played some more In A Wicked Age tonight. It went pretty well, seeming like everyone was now into the groove of how to play. One recurring character got intentionally removed off the list because his player was sick of him (the guy had some seriously bad chapters), and there seemed to generally be more awareness of how to position the characters for conflicts.

The story went more smoothly than the previous ones, too, with two tangentially related plots each being resolved quite nicely.

I'm really liking this game, and each chapter increases my enjoyment.

06 April 2008

No More Heroes

This is a game for the Wii. I'd pretty unreservedly recommend that anyone who owns the console buy it (unless anything I am about to say turns you off straight away).

It's a lightsaber (well, beam katana) fighting game in which you control Travis Touchdown (who is definitely a protagonist rather than a hero, as the title suggests). Having won a beam katana in an online auction, he is challenged to kill some guy by a sexy girl. This done, he is told that he is now #11 ranked assassin in the world and that he needs to off numbers 1 to 10 next. He carries on with gusto, in the hopes of sleeping with the girl (who is also absolutely crazy, it turns out). So much for the story - it's not really that important.

The game throws you into the first boss level right away, with many minions to waste before going after #10. Then you get let loose in the town, which is like a funnier version of Grand Theft Auto (just looking at the names of things is funny... Suplex Burger, Tyrannomarket Rex and Cafe Gloom are my favorites so far... oh yes, and Go Commando Army Surplus). There's a fee to pay to set up each boss fight, so you have to spend a while doing freelance assassination missions and other odd jobs to make money before you can sign up. The odd jobs are strange and hilarious (lawn mowing, mine clearing, pumping petrol, etc). There's also all kinds of collectibles - trading cards for luchadors, t shirts (they're numbered, and I have #83 or so), etc. You find these in various places - alleyways, dumpsters, buried treasure, boss levels, etc.

It also glories in absurdity. Travis talks to you directly, and speech bubbles appear by him to tell you when special button presses/remote movements are required. The HUD is all in fantastic fake 8-bit pixellation, and little midi tones and tunes abound when you pick stuff up etc. It's a collection of game in-jokes, as well as plenty of humour on the dodgy side of taste. The main example is save points - Travis needs to go to the toilet to save the game. As the story goes on the characters say stranger and stranger stuff. At halfway through I can't begin to imagine how it's going to be by the end.

The other chief thing is that the fighting is a lot of fun. The basic system is nunchuk stick to move, A to attack with beam katana and B to punch or kick, D-pad for evade. Holding the remote up or down switches you to high or low stance to defend yourself or get past defenses. That's all cool but not exciting. What makes it are the death blows and wrestling moves. Once you have almost taken someone out, the game goes into slow-mo and displays a (big, pixellated) arrow. You swing the remote in that direction, and that triggers a death blow animation. They are sweet. Wrestling is similar - if you stun an opponent with B attacks, you can grab them with another B press, then you get arrows for nunchuk & remote movements (sometimes two in order) which trigger some fantastic slow-mo wrestling takedowns. There's more in the fighting but that is the basic and the coolest stuff.

So far, I rate this as the best Wii game I've played. Buy it!

Delerium's Master by Tanith Lee

The third book of the flat earth series, this one has more of an ongoing story which appears to continue over the final two books. This detracts a little - I quite liked the collection of stories that were more tangentially related in the first two books. It's still fun, however, so no real complaints.

29 March 2008

Under the Eagle by Simon Scarrow

I picked up a cheap copy of this first in the Cato & Macro series, and thoroughly enjoyed a second read of it. Great stuff.

25 March 2008

The Secret History of Moscow by Ekaterina Sedia

Absolutely great fantasy. It begins with people randomly turning into birds, and the search for these people leads to an underground where the lost and unwanted of Moscow live - both the politically dispossessed and mythological and fictional characters. As the story goes on you get many little stories about why the people ended up there.

It's similar to Gaiman's Neverwhere, in broad strokes, but this story has a lot more to it. It's more straightforward (in both style and content) too.

23 March 2008

Ysabel by Guy Gavriel Kay

This story is less original than most of Kay's - in this case the ground has been tread before by Robert Holdstock in particular. That aside, it's a good coming of age/discovery of magic in the modern world story.

Game Chef 2008 Approaches...

With a pre-contest, announced here. Interesting! I really like the idea of building a game to fit some illustrations.

18 March 2008

Beyond Human by Gregory Benford and Elisabeth Malartre

An interesting review of current research in robotics and cybernetic enhancement and where it might go. The book is strongest on the state of the art, but fairly weak on speculating further ahead (lots of interesting ideas, but many of them are not well supported in the text). There's a few interviews with people involved in the development of these technologies, too, which adds a few other points of view to that of the authors.

17 March 2008

Ten Little New Yorkers by Kinky Friedman

Another of Friedman's strange, funny detective novels. This one has a more melancholy mood than usual, and seems like it might be the last he's intending to write. The story also focuses on the recurring characters quite strongly. Good.

12 March 2008

11 March 2008

In A Wicked Age: Wrathful Gods and Priests

We played another chapter of In A Wicked Age. It was good, with the conflicts running faster and character generation going a bit quicker. I think the other skill that seems to be building up in repeated play is choosing interesting best interests - this game's set seemed a little more punchy than the group's first try.

Anyhow, we had the Blood & Sex oracle, with the character Nirar (fanatical priest of Jila, destroyer of all other gods and cults) returning. The other elements that came up were the classic girl to wed the effigy of the harvest god, a cutting insult and a woman who was the heir of sorcerors and poisoners.

The story started with meetings between the player characters and some initial maneuvers as they planned how to achieve best interests. Then it all went crazy with almost no-stop conflicts as we had Nirar and the priest of the harvest god fighting (Nirar won), a poet-assassin being pursued by the now-animated effigy of the harvest god in revenge for his insults, and some crazy stuff as Adar tried to prevent his lover Shamnita marrying the effigy, and Ivanim (sp?) the poisoner trying to mess things up to her own advantage.

Great stuff. I'm looking forward to the next one (in which Adar will return, possibly as a ghost).

The Night Manager by John Le Carre

An interesting story, written soon after the Berlin Wall came down and dealing with spy agencies looking for other targets. Also stands out in that it kind of has a happy ending.

01 March 2008

Night's Master by Tanith Lee

So, Luke lent me the actual books that Vincent Baker listed as inspirational to In A Wicked Age.

It's delightfully weird, and I can certainly see how the style informed the game. It's a fun read in it's own right, of course. In some ways it was like one of the classic Conan stories, but without the racism and sexism. Lee's style is also lyrical and whimsical, unlike Howard's very straightforward, punchy stuff.

One of the best fantasy novels I've read recently. I'm looking forward to the other four.

26 February 2008

Red Box Hack - Troll Trouble

We played a fun game of Red Box Hack. Unlike the other two games I have run, this one had a lot more general roleplaying and hijinks and was less a straight run of monster fights.

The story was that the town of Jade Lake was having more problems than usual with the nearby troll tribes, due to the trolls having a new king. Our 'heroes' all came to town in order to collect the reward and then got themselves thrown in 'the hole' for starting a bar brawl. We started play at this point.

The characters were a Longrunner (returning character from my first game, so level 2 - Birdfeet & Chalk door), a Bear (Heart song) and a Magus (Illusions).

So they first escaped from 'the hole' via a chalk door (into the town sewer). They made their way to a hole, and the longrunner ran up the walls and then acquired a rope to get the others out (with a town watch close encounter on the way). Then they all went and had some drinks and a bath. In the morning, they were preparing to go see the Count about the adventure when a town crier wandered by, announcing (amongst other news) the dangerous escaped convicts. They quickly 'silenced' the poor guy. Then they went to see the Count. After some waiting while he adjudicated a problem to do with a goat, they were told the details and shown the Medal of Glory that the Count was going to give to the people who brought him the troll king head.

They headed out of town for troll central, coming upon a caravan that had been largely destroyed by a huge group of trolls. They bravely attacked but were all defeated. They did some pretty awesome narration of their show off moves, though. The group kind of turned into a air guitar metal crew, so show offs included a lot of air guitar riffing, and similar.

They awoke in another cell, in the troll fortress. The bear healed them (heart song - Queen's 'It's a Kind of Magic'), then they exited via a chalk door. The two troll guards were rapidly slain, and they attempted to rescue other prisoners - until they found one that was some kind of hideous monster. That one got left in the cell. They also acquired a girl who was looking for her parents and also let slip that the caravan was transporting the legendary Golden Statue of the Monkey King.

They began making their way towards what they thought would be the troll king's chambers. They fought some other trolls on the way, which knocked the bear and magus out (they hadn't taken the time to fully heal after the heart song). The longrunner managed to elude pursuit and wake them up, and after another heart song and some troll liquor they were good as new.

Then they made a chalk door on the ceiling where they guessed the troll king's bed was - successfully!

The troll king's bed and his two consorts were angry, and the fight was quick and brutal. Due to a round of epic show off moves, they absolutely nailed the troll king before he got a chance to hit them (he had 5 awesome tokens at this point too).

Then they located the girl's parents and the statue. Both were surrounded by trolls. They realised that they had an ace in the hole, and the magus illusion disguised himself as the troll king. He ordered all the trolls to go attack someone to the north of the fortress, also successfully.

The team grabbed the statue and family and headed back to town. They simply ignored the entreaty to take the statue to the temple it was going to, grabbed the medal of glory from the Count and there was levelling up and rejoicing all round! Huzzah!

Great fun, but a couple of issues that made play a little less fun:
  • It's still very easy for anyone to just get nailed in a fight before they had much chance to do anything.
  • I'm not convinced that we need two different types of roll - I'd prefer if they were all d12 or all 2d10.

23 February 2008

Centurion by Simon Scarrow

This new episode in the Cato/Macro series is the best so far. The two are in charge of auxiliaries in Syria, under the command of the Longinus (who hates them). They get involved in the affairs of Palmyra, a kingdom between Roman Syria and Parthia. There's a lot of action, and some good twists and turns as things escalate.

I also liked that Cato and Macro are back (almost) to their natural place. The last book (or two, maybe) in which they are required to act as spies primarily felt a bit less punchy.

21 February 2008

The War of Knives by Broos Campbell

The second Matty Graves novel - about a young officer in the US Navy in Napoleonic times - this one has Graves entangled in the slave rebellion in Saint-Domingue (modern Haiti). The story is exciting, bloody and generally a little more rough around the edges compared to stories about the Royal Navy. That seems fitting given my knowledge of the US Navy of the times. There's plenty of intrigue in amongst it too, with spies and conspiracies involved in the action.

18 February 2008

Captain's Fury by Jim Butcher

In this book, I think Butcher has really hit his stride in this series. The characters are developing well, and there's more focus to it. Also, it's a good story, and I like the way that Tavi is going.

17 February 2008

The Last Colony by John Scalzi

This is the third book about Perry (after Old Man's War and The Ghost Brigades). It finishes off his story in great style - I think it's the best novel of the three. There's little of the humour of the first novel left, as Perry is given governorship of a new colony world and finds himself in a huge pile of trouble (hostile wildlife, human politics, interstellar war, etc).

The only thing that really troubled me is that a major subplot on the colony world is dropped as soon as the bigger picture issues come into play. I realise that the characters might be preoccupied, but there's a point where several months are skipped and I was expecting that how things played out would at least be mentioned. Oh well, a minor point really.

Read this. After you read the first two.

The Servants by Michael Marshall Smith

A short, strange novel. The story is halfway between Nick Hornby and Neil Gaiman, with a kid dealing with various family issues and some mysterious (and later fantastic) things going on in the house he moved to. Interesting.

14 February 2008

The Sky People by S M Stirling

A strange beast, this is planetary romance style adventure (e.g. Burroughs' Mars stories) with a hard science background. So we have some heroic people adventuring across a Venus that is filled with jungles, dinosaurs and primitive human tribes, but a plausible alternate history behind it all.

Good stuff. A solid adventure story, lots of neat bits in it along the way.

12 February 2008

Nine Worlds: Slaves of Saturn

We played a one-shot Nine Worlds game last night. It was fun, but didn't quite meet my expectations. The main reasons for this were that the characters muses were not quite as good as they could have been, and that we got bogged down in the conflict rules. The muses lacked a bit due to me rushing through character generation a bit (to get through an adventure by the end of the evening) combined with the fact that they're a new idea for the players - everyone had got the idea by the end of the game, but not so much at first.

The conflicts were a problem mainly because I hadn't reminded myself how they worked (Nine Worlds was a last minute pick when one player couldn't make it). This meant that a lot of the subtleties were forgotten the first time through, or not explained well, and so on. We also went into follow-up conflicts too many times... this was just because we hadn't set stakes well, and because of a desire to (e.g.) take advantage of temporary point gains.

In any case, we still had a pretty good time, with the players starting as heroic pirates off to rescue some enslaved relatives from Saturn. Their nemesis, another pirate, tried to trap them at first and this led to a big fight between the two aetherships. Due to some bad luck, their foe got an early advantage and pushed it as far as he could, ultimately killing the PC ship captain while the other two scuttled their ship and escaped in the other. They made their way to Saturn and begun looking for the slaves.

While they did that, the player who had lost his character quickly made up a new one - a slave, hoping to escape, who was also designed to stretch (or break) the mechanics (with 6 or 7 in Metamorphosis and other similarly extreme stats).

We then played out the slave rebellion combined with rescue attempt, which succeeded and had the two pirates team up with the ex-slave (and one reunited with his sister). They went to find the other chap they were going to rescue, but by now we were running low on time.

To finish up, I had a chimera track them down, for one final conflict (with the assumption that if they won they would free the other guy and escape Saturn). This fight was more fun, as we had the mechanics down better by this point, and went back and forward a few times before they finally took the chimera down.

Conclusions: I'm a little more cautious about running this now (not less keen, but I'll be better prepared next time). Also, not well suited to a one-shot - looking back at the one I played in a few months ago, I suddenly respect Steve's ability to keep it exciting and on track even more (I can even pick a few techniques of his that I'm regretting not using last night). Running a longer game, with no rushing over character and group generation, to get muses right is pretty much required. Plus, the fact that you would get much better at the conflict mechanics (it feels to me like 2-3 sessions of play would be enough that it would be fully taken on board).

The River Horses by Allen Steele

This is a short novel in the Coyote sequence. It falls in between two of the novels, and feels like one of the episodes that make the main novels up. The story suffers a little because of this - there isn't the same context as the novels, which means that I couldn't really remember anything about some of the characters (and there isn't much time spent in that sort of backstory). Still, it's a good story.

Gold Unicorn by Tanith Lee

This follows on from Black Unicorn, and continues in generally the same vein. It's a little darker, however, and not quite as fresh as the first book.

10 February 2008

Black Unicorn by Tanith Lee

I read this due to the things Vincent Baker said about Lee inspiring much of In A Wicked Age. This isn't one of the specific ones he mentioned, but it was what the library had.

It's fun. Light, funny fantasy about the daughter of a sorceress who inadvertently resurrects a unicorn in her room and the events that follow. It's reminiscent of Jack Vance (especially the Lyonesse books), but without the bizarre vocabulary and with generally more gentle events.

The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

Like The Subtle Knife, I found this better the second time through. Still the weakest of the three, but a necessary ending to the story.

09 February 2008

The Good Shepherd


This is a fictionalised version of the early days of the CIA, from the point of view of Matt Damon's counter-intelligence expert. I'm not an expert on the history, but the impression I got was that the main characters were all loosely based on real people and likewise with the events in the film.

It's pretty slow, and Damon plays his guy so cold that it takes a while to find people in the film to empathize with. As everything starts to slot together, it becomes more compelling.

I'm not sure yet what message to take away from it, which at least suggests it's somewhat deeper than most films. Well worth a look.

07 February 2008

The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

I enjoyed this more the second time. I think that the knowledge of where Will and Lyra's stories are going helped (the first time, the story felt like it was going off the tracks implied by The Golden Compass).

05 February 2008

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

I decided to re-read this instead of seeing the film (which by most accounts is terrible). The book remains good, and coming out of it I can't really see how film-makers could have screwed it up. So much of it seems amenable to filming, with a moderately good writer.

01 February 2008

The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton

This is a really good read. It's an analysis of what makes houses and buildings good. I came to it via the TV series he made based on it (The Perfect Home), which is also good but has less to it.

In any case, this book gives you a lot to think about and has some really interesting stuff about the history of architecture. It also made me rather dissatisfied with my own house, but at the moment there is no way I can do anything about that.

30 January 2008

Galactic North by Alastair Reynolds

I got pretty tired of Reynolds' stuff a while back - I find that the things I don't like pretty much balance the stuff that I do, so overall I don't get a huge amount out of the books.

In any case, I decided to give him another go with this story collection. Some of them were good, some suffered from the same things I dislike (e.g. atrocities).

29 January 2008

In A Wicked Age: The Tyrant and the Thief

My Monday evening group played a nice game of In A Wicked Age. We used the God-kings of War oracle, and got a story about a soldier trying to desert, a tyrant and his demon adviser fighting for control of the kingdom, a religious zealot trying to execute the tyrant, and a thief trying to steal some relics.

The story started fairly slowly, with the characters maneuvering for advantage. Once they had felt out the terrain of the story (and become familiar with the conflict mechanics), things began moving a lot faster. The soldier's story was resolved first, with him escaping the army with some stolen cash. The other three ended up in a series of conflicts over the tyrant and the relics, ending up with them all escaping with their goals basically met (although I got the impression some were not quite as resolved as the players may have wished).

Only one character remained on the owe list at the end, and somewhat fittingly it was the zealot. I say fittingly, because he seemed to be a supporting character in this story, against the more significant moves of the demon and thief. I look forward to seeing the story which has him as a protagonist next time.

Mainspring by Jay Lake

Strange novel about an alternate Earth that is driven by clockwork - with the planets moving along rails in the sky and so forth. The story follows a young man given a quest to rewind the mainspring of the Earth before it stops, and follows him through various strange and cool places.

The ending and overall story arc didn't really work for me, however. It was an interesting read, just for the vision of things, but I felt that it needed more resolution than Lake provides.

27 January 2008

Samurai Champloo

I should have watched this a while ago, as such a fan of Cowboy Bebop. However, when I attempted to, I didn't like it. Maybe subtitles and watching on a computer screen were the problem? In any case, I watched it on a decent-sized TV this time, and dubbed.

It's really damn good.

Basically, they made a modern, urban-inspired samurai story. This comes through explicitly here and there (particularly in some of the more silly episodes) but generally is present in the attitudes of the characters.

The animation is consistently high quality and the characters are great fun - they're a similar bunch to Spike, Jet and Faye in Bebop in some ways, but they're all moving on from their pasts, rather than letting their pasts drag them down all the time. Also, the fight scenes are fantastic. They're fast and exciting, and Jin and Mugen both have very different (and neat) styles that prevents them getting boring. They also have a healthy disregard for historical accuracy.

Recommendation: Watch them.

Death At A Funeral

Good but not great - a farce in which a funeral turns rapidly into a disaster for the whole family. Some great acting, but perhaps played too straight (with the exception of Alan Tudyk and one or two others). It suffered a little from a few extra characters and subplots that could probably have been left out in order to focus more on the main ones.

The rest of the Aubrey Maturin novels by Patrick O'Brian

I got a little bored of individual comments, so here's the overall one for:
  • The Nutmeg of Consolation
  • Clarissa Oakes
  • The Wine-Dark Sea
  • The Commodore
  • The Yellow Admiral
  • The Hundred Days
  • Blue At The Mizzen
Nutmeg through Commodore finish the best run of the books, I think. There's a general trend here of the books becoming shorter and more similar (in characterisation and prose, rather than the events chronicled). Still, it's a shame to reach the end again, and sad that O'Brian died (especially without completing the stories). However, the place that Blue At The Mizzen closes is perhaps as good a place as any for the end.

26 January 2008


Watched this one on dvd last night. I was pleasantly surprised by it. I remember not being hugely impressed by the book - it wasn't bad or anything, just not especially good either.

However, the film brings it all to life very well. The magical kingdom is just as magical as you might desire, and the acting is generally good (often over the top)... I did think that Ricky Gervais and Robert de Niro's pieces didn't quite work, however.

The special effects for some big pieces of magic were very well done, and there's about the right level of humour to contrast with the nastiness of the evil witch and princes who are involved.

Recommendation: If you like fantasy/fairy tale films, see it.

21 January 2008

Kapcon/Games on demand - Red Box Hack

This choice came up after someone - Aaron, I think - requested 'the game with the least emotional depth'. The winnowing of choices left it up, so four brave adventurers headed off to the fire caves.

My dungeon had a sketchy plot about two rival groups of imps in the caves with a delicate alliance, which the adventurers totally ignored. Instead they charged in and murdered basically everything. Once again, the quirky character types and combat system were well-received and we had a great time.

I used more arenas and maneuvering this game, which added a lot to the tactical side of things. We did have a general tendency on the players' part to hold their characters back using show off and assist moves for too long... this meant that some of the fights became a waiting game until one side went for it, with many one-hit kills (both PCs and monsters) as a side effect. Note for Eric: do you intend that there is no real way to boost up your defense to get away from a really mean attack? The players were concerned (mainly when I one-shotted their warrior who was sitting on 15 or so awesome tokens, I think) that they had no defensive option in that case. There's something in that, but I had a feeling that this might be intentional on your part... can you let me know which it is?

Their first fight - a giant wolverine - was a walkover, partly because I forgot to include the 10 mook wolverines I had written in... too bad, I suppose. Then they charged right in to the lava imp area and began showing off and assisting while the imps did some quick attacks and so forth. The party were quite cocky about the lava imp shaman and his 10 minions until the third round, when a bunch of reinforcements turned up. The imps played it cautious as the party charged and began fighting, so they were really in the thick of it when the second wave of reinforcements came in. The warrior and bear got knocked out, and the magus was preparing for a final stand, when the mystic used 'commanding voice' to make the imp chief sound the retreat. As the imps pulled back, they ran back to town with the wounded. The bear failed both survival rolls, and died, to be replaced by a longrunner. Two of the monster lava imps remained.

On returning to the cave, they explored the other entrance, and fairly annihilated the village of the steam imps. They found a necromancer (NPC) who had managed to get in, to get one of the treasures himself, and the mystic used commanding voice to make him unsummon his 'giant thing made of imp bones'. Then they killed him, only realising their mistake when I pointed out that they never defeated the bone thing and thus missed out on 40xp. Haha!

There wasn't much time left, but they quickly went back to the lava imp village and finished off the rest of them, just in time for the round to end.

Other notes for Eric:
- I think some more limitations on cross-class talents are in order... in this game, the player of the longrunner urged everyone to take 'Do two things at once (if one is running)', which made them an unstoppable parade of destruction. Maybe like niche protection: you can't have a cross-class talent if someone in the party already has it?
- Maybe add another combat action: 'Cunning plan: use your gear, the terrain, etc to gain some advantage in the combat. E.g. "I use my specialist equipment: bombs to turn the terrain into hazardous!"' Really, I just want a placeholder (and suggested mechanic maybe) for 'something else not directly about damage/movement/awesome tokens'. At the moment, there can be a temptation to just stick to the listed combat actions, because they are listed as 'the things you can do'. Adding one that encourages creative crazy tactics (as seen in both my games so far) would be cool.
- I don't think you need all that stuff about connections between arenas, beyond a little paragraph about how they might be one-way or ranged only or require a roll or something. Categorizing them as you have doesn't seem to add much.
- Some of the talents are way, way more effective than others. Is that a choice or are you still balancing them. Of particular note: the longrunner's two things at once if one is running (do anything then move) compared to warrior's charger (move then get an attack).

Kapcon/Games on demand - The Shab-al-Hiri Roach

This game, pitched as 'all about academic politics, but with an ancient Sumerian roach-god' immediately got two excited players (both only too familiar with academia), plus another who had played it before.

The game was the most restrained outing to Pemberton I have yet seen, with only one murder (committed by my character, who was a little paranoid even before he was possessed by the roach). Everyone else was maneuvering the luminaries against their enemies in a manner much like it is done in the real world (or, at least, the world of university politics).

The other thing was that everything fired on all cylinders right away - each event, scenes were quickly proposed and resolved, then followed up by others building on what had gone before. We raced through the six events of the year, with time left for a couple of InSpectres missions. That said, it wasn't like we were skipping any cool stuff... just focus on what to do each scene, and how to manage it. We did have a little less focus on NPCs than my previous games, which probably contributed to the quick finish. The four of us largely concentrated on each other in our maneuvering for reputation.

We all spent most of the game possessed, the winner luckily drawing a roach card at the beginning of the final event and casting it off (just as the other character who had already done so was possessed a second time).

A great game! The Roach is a nice one-shot, and I haven't had a game yet that wasn't hilarious.