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.