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.