21 December 2009

Play: FreeMarket

The Monday group took FreeMarket for a spin tonight. It certainly delivered the gameplay promised by the text - I certainly had great fun and everyone else seemed to as well.

The initial round of running a pretend challenge seemed to confuse everyone as much as it enlightened them. Then we got into the basic character generation stuff, which was all fine.

MRCZ creation was a little tougher, as everyone tried to come up with something that their disparate skillsets could work together for. In the end they didn't really manage, but everyone was enthusiastic about "My Little Special Friend" MRCZ, who create customized and weaponized pets. So far they printed up a dayglo stripy cat to pay someone's gambling debt and have got themselves a request for a weaponized cat, too. They acquired the raw materials for it but we ran out of time before they got to build it.

The situation generation was effective and fun. Every character has some memories written on their sheet, and you go and grab elements from each of these to make up things that can happen - so one guy from this character's memory wants an item from another person's memory to blow up a statue that's in a third character's memory. This sounds confusing, but it worked really well. I tied them into the whole custom pet theme of the MRCZ and we just went from there.

Filling up the station with oddball types is fun too. Just finding out about their neighbours was quite fun (a metal band on one side, a mobber with tentacles on the other). I quite enjoyed a courier who delivered them a couple of things. There's going to be more to him than they have yet realised, I think.

The challenge mechanics are pretty fun, although the card draws distract a little from remembering to narrate what you are doing. It's one of those games where I'm going to have to keep reminding myself & others to narrate what happens. The card draws give you a lot to work with, though! Just things like drawing a geneline and hazard give you something to work with (i.e. your narration should incorporate your natural talents but have something go not quite right as well).

Looking forward to playing more! The next session for My Special Little Friend should be epic - they have to build their weaponized cat to give to one guy's Dad. Nobody asked him what for yet... but hey, I guess they don't need to know. What could possibly go wrong with arming a cat with a miniature flechette cannon?

08 December 2009

Read-through Review: FreeMarket (beta)

I've been waiting for Crane and Sorenson to finish this one ever since I found out about the premise. They have released the beta to anyone who signs up for the colonist program at the website (only 1000 berths available!)

So, the premise is that you are a bunch of dudes who live on this space station where death is not permanent, scarcity is no more and everyone cares mainly about reputation (here called Flow, and basically the same as Whuffie from Cory Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom). The player characters start as a MRCZ - an group who have formed a team to do something. You can pretty much pick any goal you want - the examples in the text include people trying to make various station systems work better through party designers and professional extortionists.

What drives it all, however, is Flow. You want your Flow to be increasing, because your MRCZ only gets more Flow when the members get more. You need to risk it whenever you use the game's challenge mechanics, so you'll spend a bit as well. Plus, if you run out you can be voted off the station forever.

There's lots of cool stuff to do - making things, smushing things together to make other things, hacking people's memories, engineering memes, and so on. The world's sketched in the example tech and things like that, and there's plenty of ideas there. Still, it's overall a sandbox kind of game. And pretty much anything goes (although if you're annoying, sooner or later your Flow will tank and you'll be put in a box aimed at Mars).

I suspect what will happen in play is that the players will go a bit crazy picking a project for their MRCZ, but that will soon become an all-consuming quest (no matter how silly it is). The notes on how to run it provide lots of ways for the GM to build on what's on the character sheets and make the game rock on no matter whether you are trying to save the solar system or breeding a superior moss as a novelty item. The game's probably not for everyone, but it's certainly for me and I plan to play it the next session that someone is absent (i.e. preventing more Trail of Cthulhu play).

One more note: the beta requires a significant craftiness investment, as the game is played with 6 custom card decks. Now, the beta package includes the raw materials to print and make them (and some fans have even made versions that are more printing out friendly), but I can tell you from experience that it takes a long time to assemble the 245 (!) cards you need. I wouldn't have bothered if the boxed set was going to be any earlier than it is (sounds like next May or June is the ETA). On the other hand, you can consider making the cards your first Cultivation challenge (Cultivation: making tech items using old fashioned techniques).

Gaming Update

Well, look at that. The experiment with Dungeonslayers finished after another couple of sessions. We had fun but I felt that the game didn't have the legs for a longer campaign to work well. Basically the simplicity of the rules worked against itself there - in combat, everyone soon homed in on their one or two best things to do every round, so the fights got less interesting (the advanced combat rules option on the website might help with that). Plus, as a GM, there's no real guidance as to how tough the monsters are, so stocking an adventure is hard. The only clue are the raw stats and the xp listed. I'd like to see something more structured for creating your own critters as well.

I still think it's a great game, but probably best suited to short campaigns or one-off sessions.

After that I've done a few Monster of the Week playtests. The rules are coming along pretty well, and this is steadily getting polished into something that I can can give out to closed beta testers soon (i.e. in between 1 and 6 months). Play gets a nice Supernatural style build from mystery to tracking the monster to final showdown, with a few character scenes along the way.

Then the regular group (with one person left for England and two new faces) hit the next chapter of our ongoing Trail of Cthulhu series. This time they were exploring a site off the coast of Greenland - mainly by remote control, as only one of the divers was a player character. I wanted a short, intense mystery for this one, and it seemed to happen that way. They defeated that evil below the ocean amnd now it's investigators 2, Cthulhu 2 with one more qualifier before their final chance to stop things at R'lyeh. The plan is to move on with more of this, so chapter five will be next, with a trip to the Amazon.

15 September 2009

Old School Dungeon Gaming Time!

To take a break from playtests of Monster of the Week, we've been playing some Dungeonslayers.

It's a nice old-style game, and appealed to me because it had a fairly basic, consistent core system. That's in contrast to many of the old school rules I've looked at that attempt to replicate old style D&D warts and all.

I sat down with How to Host a Dungeon and ran through one to build up some background for the game, which was fun in itself and gave me some maps and a general history of the area that provided me a lot of ideas.

First session had only two players, and I set out to run them through the starter dungeon in the main Dungeonslayers pdf. We managed to get through that in one session (with one fatality) and that left those two characters at a decent level. The system works pretty well and provides a good framework for that sort of adventuring - in our case, not taken very seriously. There was a tendency for some fights to get a little tedious as bad rolls led to things taking a long time to die. We got some creative use of tactics to split up one huge group so they could take it out piecemeal. That's the kind of cool stuff I want to encourage, so I was pleased when that happened.

Next session had a couple more players, who had to join on as basically the expendable henchmen of our higher level elves. I had planned to take them through the second sample adventure from the Dungeonslayers website, and indeed when we left off they were nearly about to begin it. The maps derived from my How to Host a Dungeon game really came into their own here, with their journey to find the bandits they're hunting full of sidetracks, getting lost in a swamp, amusing townsfolk, legends about the devilish swamp dwarves and last but definitely not least, a juvenile owlbear attack.

I'm looking forward to next time, when they actually assault the bandits (and begin to uncover clues about how much stuff they are walking over the top of).

Reading Update

Kage Baker The Empress of Mars: A nice story set in the shadow of her epic Company series. Only tangentially related, but good in its own right. Feisty, outcast Mars colonists versus everyone! Huzzah!

Seth Hunter The Time of Terror: Another Napoleonic naval adventure, broadly. More specifically, it's earlier (Robespierre is the chief antagonist) and our hero spends most of the book as a spy in Paris and smuggling things back and forward. Good stuff, but grim (being about The Terror, hard not to be).

Chris Wickham The Inheritance of Rome: A big, solid history of Europe from 400-1000. Lots of interesting stuff in here, although because of the book's scope, detail is lacking. It paints a picture of the fall of Rome being less catastrophic than had been previously thought, and follows the various aspects that were preserved and the new things that arose after. I'd been aware of the revision of the "Dark Ages" into something somewhat less of an oubliette of history, and this cleared up the reasons that view has come to be.

30 August 2009

Read in August

Charles Stross's short fiction collection Wireless is good. Several of the pieces feel like they're sketches for novels, rather than fully fleshed out. That might just be the effect of them being short.

I recently read a bunch of Le Carre - the Smiley trilogy and then A Most Wanted Man. All good, and a very interesting contrast. The earlier novels are almost devoid of politics and describe spies who seem to almost fear ideology. The newer ones (including The Mission Song and The Constant Gardener) are all concerned with wrongs going on in the world, and Le Carre definitely wants to draw our attention to them.

Karl Schroeder's Pirate Sun is another great installment in the Virga series. Very strange, very cool science fiction here.

Re-reading of Robert Low's viking stories (The Whale Road and The Wolf Sea) just confirmed my liking of them. The internet tells me there's now a third volume - The White Raven - which I must get hold of.

I also read the first of Tim Severin's viking series, Odinn's Child. It is not as good as Low's take, but interesting. He also seems to be adding a supernatural element - ghosts and the like - which is odd in a historical novel. It's deliberately somewhat ambiguous whether these elements are actually real or just hearsay, but I'm not convinced about the approach. It is good enough to look for the rest of the series, so don't take those quibbles to seriously.

Game Chef 2009 is about to begin

30 July 2009

TV shows I have been watching recently

True Blood, series 1. Very mixed feelings on this one. Basically good. However, the gross sex scenes (possibly partly just the HBO sex scene tax) really detracted a lot. It also moved very slowly for the amount of plot present - if you are going to stretch a mystery over 10 hours of TV, you need more going on.

Castle, series 1. Initially this didn't grab me that much. Nathan Fillion was fun to watch, as expected, but the setup - "mystery writer helps detective solve murders" - is not exactly the most original. The show rides on the characters, and Fillion as Castle and Stana Katic as the detective forced to work with him are both good. Not deep, but fun.

Leverage, first few episodes. The setup is that an ex-insurance investigator creates a team of criminals to commit crimes in order to take down bad guys that the law won't touch. It's a good setup, but I was let down by most of the characters being one-dimensional (although to be fair, that might improve later) and more importantly by the way they set up each episode. They rely on important stuff happening off screen a lot, and magic computers that give the team all the information they need to set up a con, and stuff like that. It's the kind of stuff that could be shown being done in a plausible way, but they just skip past that and have everything fall into place instead. Currently not really interested in watching any more.

Avatar: The Legend of Aang. We got this for the daughter of the house, and she really loved it, so I got to re-watch the whole run. I enjoyed it just as much as the first time. I also noticed that there's a fair amount of foreshadowing that I (of course) hadn't picked up on when I didn't know how it was going to end.

21 July 2009

The Caryatids by Bruce Sterling

A strange novel.

Lots of really cool ideas, but the plot basically happens only in implied spaces.

The novel essentially shows you a few little vignettes in the world, and you need to piece together most of the events from those. Sterling also sets them up so each part of the novel is the aftermath and/or setup for something big.

Not really sure what I think of it.

28 June 2009

Trail of Cthulhu: Play update.

We finished another chapter of our big Trail of Cthulhu game this week. It was a narrow victory, with one PC fatality in the final hours of their attempt to prevent something bad being awakened.

My impressions of the system are less rosy after playing it this long. It's still an enormous improvement on Call of Cthulhu, but I'm not sure that the 'design what doesn't matter' approach is really what I like when running a game. A few times I wanted the system to be something solid I could lean on (as it were), but there just isn't much there.

Partly, I think, it is the sanity system at fault. I can appreciate what Hite was trying to do with this, but I don't think it quite works. Maybe Unknown Armies spoiled me for this. In any case, the erosion of sanity doesn't seem to match the way I would like it to.

The drives also seems to have fallen flat in our game. Most of those chosen have ended up leading to few interesting compels, and not really driving the character the way they are supposed to. This might be because we didn't know how the system played when we started, of course, but it seems more than that. Maybe it is that the drives are too broad? In Spirit of the Century, part of the fun of Aspects is that you have a whole bunch of them pushing you in different directions. Here, it's just one big one always pushing you the same way.

Overall: still the best system I've met for Lovecraft roleplaying, but not perfect. Tweaking the rules would probably solve most of my problems, but I don't have much patience for tweaking rules these days.

Recent books of note, June 2009

I read a couple of A Lee Martinez's comic fantasy novels - In the Company of Ogres and A Nameless Witch. Both are good, well worth checking out if you are a fan of Asprin/Pratchett/etc.

I've been working backwards through K J Parker's trilogies. Unfortunately, my main discovery is that quality has been steadily improving. I simply stopped reading the "Fencer" trilogy after a completely gratuitous atrocity. The "Scavenger" trilogy was good but not exceptional - it uses the 'protagonist is amnesiac' cliche, and despite this is a fairly good story. Parker pretty much ruined it for me at the end when the protagonist - who has shown himself to basically be a terrible person - is revealed to have previously been a terrible person. It wasn't quite the shock reveal it might have seemed when the plot was initially sketched out. So, my advice on K J Parker: read the "Engineer" trilogy and The Company. If you like those enough to want more, read the "Scavenger" trilogy. If you want even more and are not utterly sick of the current fashion for adding atrocities to a story for no good reason, read the "Fencer" stories.

I'm not sure where this fashion for atrocities comes from - I wonder if Iain Banks is somewhat to blame (at least in science fiction and fantasy), as people imitate his work. If so, they're really hitting the wrong bit to imitate. I have a feeling it might be deriving from some other places too - the "Literary Fiction" genre seems to do it as well.

Dave Duncan has a third "Alchemist" novel, which is great fun. I read one of his generic fantasy novels, too, and it was so generic I couldn't be bothered with the second in the series. Strange that the same person can write both. Or maybe generic fantasy just taints all that it touches?

This Is Not A Game by Walter Jon Williams is a fantastic read... it's about a producer of alternate reality games, and what happens when she allows the real world and the game world to mix. Good characters, good story and a good understanding of how online life actually functions all feed in. Plus it is a story of this "this could, just, happen" rather than a more science fiction approach (like the near future in Stross's Halting State).

Speaking of Stross, the fifth installment of "The Merchant Princes" series is great although I'm unhappy I now have to wait a year or so for the final one.

23 May 2009

Book reports

I've decided that I'm no longer going to write something about every book that I read, as that was becoming a drag. I'll just write something about books that stand out, instead.

Actual play report: GHOST/ECHO

Last game night there were only three of us, and I decided to try out John Harper's mini-game GHOST/ECHO. You might as well go read it before the rest of this report - it's only two pages long.

It was a good game - taking the starting situation "your crew is sold out in the ghost world," we established that they'd been on their way to score some metal (drugs), specifically one that was used when channeling the ghost field. They fought back, were captured, escaped and then tooled up and started tracking down whoever had sold them out for revenge. By the time we'd finished, Grip and Vixen had left quite a trail of bodies behind them and were basically sorted. There's an outstanding question about whether their fixer Venom was in on the betrayal or not. That is something that will be established if we go back to the game, I expect.

The very basic resolution system was enough for the game, so if the text seemed interesting on a read through, I'd recommend you take it for a spin some time. Not sure how well it would go for a longer term game, but there's enough inspiration for a one-shot or short run in there.

The system also seemed to encourage crazy action and filling out more details about the world. The way that things in the world are specified also brings out a lot of good stuff as you fill out details in play - as GM, I mainly did this by asking what things were rather than deciding myself.

03 April 2009

Lacuna - Impressions

I've been interested in this game for a while, but it's been out of print for a while, so when it came back into print recently (with a free Lacuna device included, no less!) I picked a copy up.

It's a fun read. Loads of colour, and a cool premise. The rules and setting definitely leave plenty of room for the group to fill in gaps as they want - the game is a mindfuck for players, just from the setting, but running it from the book basically is for the GM too.

I've played a couple of sessions of it, as we've had absences preventing our theoretical main game going ahead. Both went well, with the creepiness of Blue City seeming to be invoked from my descriptions. The main mechanic - the Agents' heart rates increasing throughout the mission up to a point at which they can die - really paces the game well. The urgency it brings to events is fantastic - especially given the fact that Agents can re-roll failed rolls at the cost of increased heart rate. I can see later missions being a lot more cautious when the dice come out (especially as our second outing had the mission fail, with all three agents Ejecting to save themselves rather than stay in the increasingly doomed confrontation with the Hostile Personality).

I can see that the secrets of the game will be interesting as they begin to come out - only two missions in, we haven't really got to that yet, but as the Agents get more proficient I can see that familiarity with the mission structure and increasing amounts of Static will lead to some of the crazy stuff in the book coming out. That of course will lead to more GM improv, as most of these secrets are merely evocative hints pointing in a certain kind of direction. Still, it should be fun.

29 March 2009

The Escapement by K J Parker

The final installment of the Engineer trilogy. Ties everything up without too many surprises, in a satisfying manner. I really enjoyed these books and shall be reading Parker's other couple of series soon. They work on a few levels, combining world-building, a little philosophy and an exciting plot. The characters aren't exactly deep but they're well-drawn enough that I got drawn into their trials as the story went along - even a couple of them who were basically terrible people got some sympathy here and there.

26 March 2009

Evil For Evil by K J Parker

The second book of the Engineer trilogy, which I liked more than the first. All the characters who seemed to be good at everything begin to lose control of the forces they had unleashed in this story, which seems much more plausible. The story itself begins to weave the characters together much more closely and thus becomes a lot more exciting.

I realised that in some ways Parker is writing about similar themes to those in Pratchett's works (particularly his newer ones) but without the overt humour - there's a certain black cynicism here, still, but the books certainly aren't comedy. That aside, there's a commonality of interest in how societies can be efficiently or corruptly structured and the effects of technological change.

25 March 2009

Books Catch-up Post 3

Moving Target (aka Marque and Reprisal), Engaging the Enemy and Command Decision by Elizabeth Moon. The next three in the Vatta's War series. All very good. The only flaw is a tendency to have the characters be a little too awesome, which is forgivable in space opera.

The Guns of El Kebir and Siege of Khartoum by John Wilcox. The next two in the Simon Fonthill series. Both good and up to the standards of the previous novels. Things are beginning to go a little less hard on Fonthill in these ones.

Cretaceous Dawn by L & M Graziano. Adventure story about some people who accidentally time travel back to the time of dinosaurs and have to trek across the countryside to a particular point to come back. Good characters, science side of things is not explained at all (which I regard as a plus - if it is never explained it can't be nonsense), think of it as a superior Jurassic Park without all the waffle about 'Man playing God', chaos theory or kids (although there is a dog).

Lords of the Bow by Conn Iggulden. Second in his Ghenghis Khan series. Good, and a lot more exciting than the first one, mainly due to this one including Ghenghis beginning to conquer the rest of the world (specifically China).

16 March 2009

The January Dancer by Michael Flynn

An absolutely fantastic read. It's superior space opera, told as a chap in a bar recounts the hunt for an ancient artifact to a bard. It takes a little while to get going but I got drawn into it more and more as it went on. The characters are fantastic and Flynn really makes you care about their motivations and histories as the story unfolds. Plus the storyteller and bard have their own little story that comes out in the interludes.

All this has as a backdrop a really interesting world, a celtic-influenced human galactic ("Gaelactic") empire that seems to be the result of a few interstellar wars over a few thousand years. The cultures of each different planet are vibrant and fun (although he does have some annoying dialect used, luckily not to excess), and feel like places that might have developed in the world he describes.

Great stuff. Read it.

The First Wave by James R Benn

The second Billy Boyle mystery, this one is just as enjoyable as the first. A few of the bad guys are pretty obviously telegraphed, but that doesn't really detract from the story as a whole.

11 March 2009

Devices and Desires by K J Parker

I enjoyed this more than The Company, possibly because it is drawn on a somewhat larger scale. There's certain common elements - extremely competent characters driven to extremes by various flaws and it is possibly set in the same world.

It tells the story of an engineer sentenced to death for making improvements on a mechanical design, one of the worst crimes in the city-state where he lives (they are the renowned machine-makers of the world). This sets into motion a cascade of events that causes war and destruction, and looks set to cause even more in the following couple of volumes in the trilogy.

I also approve of Parker writing fantasy without magic, monsters and all that stuff. Just people in a different, apparently totally normal world doing their thing. Admittedly, his main characters are almost supernaturally good at everything they do, but only to an unlikely extent rather than an unbelievable one.

09 March 2009

Gaming Catch Up - Mouse Guard in Play

I've played three more games of Mouse Guard in the past few weeks. One has been with my wife and daughter, the other two with my regular gaming group.

The family game went as well as the first two, although it was somewhat constrained by bedtime. They had to defend a caravan of parties supplies from some mouse bandits - this led to a fight, which was a great success. They then had to deal with a bluejay trying to steal cake, which they had less luck with. Continues to be fun with a young kid - she had no problems at all with the concepts involved in the conflict mechanics for the fight, either.

For the regular group, we played out "Deliver the Mail" and then a mission to see what some mysterious sightings on a certain road were being caused by

The intricate details of these games aren't really such a big deal - the thing Mouse Guard really shines at is ease of play. You can sit down for 5-20 minutes and come up with some good ideas for a mission, but if you don't have time for that you can just pick a couple of things as you crack open the rulebook at the beginning of your session. The characters' beliefs and instincts give you really big clues as to what sort of things the players want to see, too.

As you play, failed rolls allow you to provide twists to the story, which is a perfect way to elaborate things as you go whenever you have a cool idea for what could happen next. The trait mechanics encourage players to choose to make rolls harder for themselves in order to gain checks to use later (I can see this becoming more common as people play more sessions and begin to really realise the power that checks have), which contributes too.

It ends up with the game seeming to reflect the choices that the group as a whole makes about where things should go, but without anyone having to try really hard to make it happen. I continue to recommend this game!

Books Catch-up Post 2

The Goddess and the Bull by Michael Balter: An account of the excavations at Catalhoyuk in Turkey, and overview of what has been discovered about the stone age town there and more generally the region. Lots of information about the people involved in the archeology, too, and a history of the various fashions and arguments that have gone through the discipline (as they relate to that site). Fascinating stuff, reawakened my interest in prehistoric human civilizations.

All the other Vorkosigan stories by Lois McMaster Bujold. Solid space opera with a mystery/thriller (and occasionally romance) twist on them.

Zoe's Tale by John Scalzi. Good, but not stunning. I found this retreaded the story of The Last Colony a little too much for my liking (I realise that he wrote it for a different audience, so this probably is not that big a deal). It did, however, clear up some problems that the other novel had so it was nice to see what was supposed to be happening with those.

Billy Boyle by James R Benn. A mystery novel about a Boston cop drafted in the Second World War and attached to Eisenhower's staff through a family connection. In London, he immediately ends up investigating some unusual goings on. It's a good story with some satisfying twists and a really good main character.

The Magicians and Mrs Quent by Galen Beckett. This is from a similar inspiration as Strange & Norrell, although this story is significantly lighter. It begins as essentially a fantasy take on a Regency romance and takes a detour through gothic too. Not really very serious, but fun and exciting. I am looking forward to the second in the series.

The Company by K J Parker. A group of retired military veterans start up a colony at the behest of their old unit leader. Things steadily begin to fall apart as their old rivalries come up, old secrets are revealed and so on. The fact that the leader has kind of stolen an island off the government is just one of the problems that they have to face. An exellent character study of things falling apart, reminiscent of Fargo (without the jokes about accents).

08 February 2009

Books Catch-up Post

I've got behind on book reviews, so here are brief notes on the ones that I have read but not reviewed.

Trading In Danger by Elizabeth Moon. Superior space opera, good characters. Will look up rest of series.

Miles, Mystery & Mayhem by Lois McMaster Bujold. #3 of Vorkosigan omnibus editions. Patchy but overall good. Some of these stories written much earlier in her career, others much later, and you can tell. Later stories are very good, although the contiunity is somewhat stretched (not quite broken, though).

The Alchemist's Code by Dave Duncan. Follow up to previously reviewed story about seer's apprentice in Venice who solves mysteries. More of the same. Good, fun.

Mouse Guard: Actual play with family

Yesterday and today we played a couple of sessions of the Mouse Guard RPG as a family - me GMing, my five year old daughter and somewhat reluctant wife playing a two-mouse patrol.

I decided that I'd take them through full character generation, as my daughter is still learning to read, so going through a template would probably be more hard work for her than thinking up answers to the character generation questions. Being impressed by Saxon in the comics, she made up Autumn, a tenderpaw who wants to be the bravest mouse in the guard. The patrol is filled out by Trevor, a middle-aged slacker of a patrol leader, who basically wants to hang around the pub drinking at every opportunity.

Their first mission was the deliver the mail episode from the book. We moved through it fairly quickly to account for a five-year old attention span, but managed to hit all the main points. They failed the pathfinding test and encountered the raven - as a twist on an attempt to use Birds-wise to help on the path-finding check (she wanted to get a bird to give her a ride to see the way!) So the raven decided to try and steal the mail instead, and was persuaded not to via a very definite Loremouse check from Trevor.

They continued to Gilpledge and sorted out Martin, and then had a brief player turn. My daughter had a lot of fun and quickly requested a second game (which had to be put off until the next day). She did sit down later on to draw a picture of her guardmouse.

Today, she insisted we play another game and once we had all the chores done we made time for it. We decided that Autumn convinced Trevor that they should go and get Martin's chair from weasel- territory after all (to play up her desire to be the bravest mouse), so that was their mission for today.

Their first obstacle was to get across a flooding stream, which they did by building a bridge (with two carpenters along, an obvious choice!) However, the roll was failed, so that made all the mice tired.

Next, when they got to Walnutpeck, they found a weasel watching the road for anyone coming along. They tried to sneak past it but failed, and had to run away from it. We decided to use a simple versus test as neither daughter nor wife felt like learning the full conflict mechanics just yet (today's elaboration was the use of traits on top of the basic roll mechanic). Autumn made this roll, eluding the weasel spy and leading the patrol and Martin back to Walnutpeck to pick up his heirloom chair before heading back into the mouse territories.

Another quick player turn followed with Autumn successfully testing to remove her tired condition and Trevor failing (I suspect a late night drinking was to blame!)

Overall, a great success. I've played a few roleplaying games with my daughter previously but this is the first one that really seemed to grab her. This might be partly the age she's at, and I think Chris Petersen's art plays a huge part. Plus, in play, the fact that the mechanics are fairly easy to grasp even for a kid who is just beginning to read (lots of "can you think of a way that you can help the other mouse do such and such?" and things like that). The fact that there's no plain old failure is also helpful, as I feel like rolling and being told "your mouse didn't do what you wanted" would be a buzzkill for her, but being told "well, you built the bridge but now you are all tired out" was okay.

Looking forward to more stories about Autumn and Trevor the brave and lazy (respectively)!

25 January 2009

Cordelia's Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold

After certain persons close to me going on at some length about Bujold in general and the Vorkosigan series in particular, and one of them lending us pretty much the whole of the Vorkosigan series, I have begun working my way through them.

This first omnibus edition comprises two novels that occur before Miles Vorkosigan himself is actually born, serving mainly to set up the world in general and the formidableness of his parents in particular. It's good, high action space opera. It has some of the flaws you might expect given that description - the heroes are just phenomenally awesome, for example - but accepting these conventions, it is an immensely good read.

The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross

Re-reading this was enjoyable, especially given that I had been thinking a lot about Lovecraft (with running Trail of Cthulhu) and it's relationship to espoinage fiction (given the Delta Green connection in my game). Plus, I've been reading a bit of Hellboy/BPRD and thinking a bit about Cold City/Hot War too, so I guess the whole apocalypti/monsters from beyond thing might be rather on my mind right now.

Anyhow, to the book itself... it's certainly raw compared to his later work, and filled to the brim with nerdy jokes about Lovecraft, information technology and spy fiction. Still, they are good jokes and it is a good story. I suspect that The Jennifer Morgue will get a second read pretty soon, too, and I'm looking forward to the third outing even more now.

19 January 2009

Kapcon 2009 Report

So, this year I was a leading conspirator in Kapcon's second games on demand event. We had a bigger team of facilitators, with last year's team (me, Steve Hickey, Morgan Davie and Malcolm Craig) joined by Aaron Caskey, Simon Carryer and Gregor Hutton. Everything went a bit more smoothly, with the benefit of having done it all once before, and overall I felt that the room had a more relaxed atmosphere.

The main thing was getting games played - I have numbers for the first five rounds, where we seem to have got 40 people through the room. In fact the games played is somewhat higher than this would imply, because with 7 of us facilitators, we all got to join in games a fair bit too. I think we had four or five games run per round, and a good selection too. Highly requested this year were 3:16, Mouse Guard, and Best Friends. I guess having Mr Hutton present may have accounted for some of that.

As facilitators, we'd made a specific decision to reduce the number of games we each offered and focus on fewer games that we were more excited to run. In the end we each had 4-8, I think. As one of those at the higher end of that range, I think that next year I'm going to aim for no more than 5-6 to offer. More focus, I think, means more enthusiasm when pitching and running.

Anyway, for some specific games...

Round one I ran a game of Mouse Guard. We played the 'deliever the mail' scenario from the book, minus one character, and had a great time. The main mission went relatively smoothly and we had time to do a follow up GM/player turn in which they dealt with the mouse Loretta and her story that had come up after their encounter with the raven and losing some of the mail. A good time was had by all, and I think that session might have sold the game to one of the players who wanted to try it out. I like this game - as GM, the rules really help build the story up as you play.

Round two, I got to play a game of 3:16 run by Gregor. I played a quiet, possibly psycho trooper in what turned out to be a squad of misfits. We almost immediately got pulled off active service due to a variety of screwups and the sarge got caught in Catch-22 by his superior officer. Eventually we got shipped to a trooper R&R brothel planet to work as MPs, which went as badly as might be expected, as we stumbled upon alien inflitrators up to no good. Our attempts to deal with them were hindered by (1) our decision that some innocent alien clams were the enemy and (2) the sargent being infected and mind controlled by a Gongaran ooze. Despite all this, we managed to wipe all the bastards out through the panicked use of lots of strength flashbacks. Take that, disgusting groin oozes! A fun, albeit absolutely disgusting game. Be glad I have left out the details of the Gongaran life cycle.

Round four, was a game of Geiger Counter. We built a science fiction film "New Eden", in which the menace was the breakdown of a utopian Star Trek-type alliance due to the danger of new ideas. Our setting was a frontier base where an alien diplomatic mission was taking place. The overall plot was that some paranoid or possibly just cautious faction in the alliance determined that the alien influence would destablize society, so attempted to destroy the contact at the source. Our characters were people on the base attempting to either escape or deal with either the 'cauterization' faction or the 'new ideas' faction. The aliens also took some part, although their motivations were 'escape from crazy humans' once everything began falling apart. The game went well, with some strong potential survivor characters and some great scenes. I felt that the pacing went as it should, and that Geiger Counter once again shone as a game for this sort of story. Two survivors, one infected with 'new ideas' and both leaving room for a sequel.

Round five was a game of The Shab-al-Hiri Roach which went very well. I had a couple of players who were, I think, new to the style of game (GM-less, one shot) but they were both experienced LARPers, and they soon got into the swing of things. We had a fairly low body count game, but plenty of social sniping and heckling people's formal speeches. Due to a combination of players who were a couple and fortuitous Roach commands, there was also a pretty funny scandalous BDSM affair between their two characters. My own character had a very satisfying arc, in which I pushed him to bring the crazy (he was Roach-possessed from the beginning) but he threw it off before the end, and I had him give up his stuffy university life to become a musician and a better person, having reformed from those dark days of 1919 at Pemberton College. I think that might be the first happy ending I have had for a Roach character!

So, four out of four good games. In each I felt like the intended effect of "introduce people to something they are interested in but might not have given a go otherwise" was met, and wholly or mostly the secondary objective of "and they liked it too". There was also generally a more sociable and fun vibe in the games on demand room this year, which was good. Plus, thanks to Malcolm, we had arranged to have a few games to give away as spot prizes (on a 'you get one entry each time you play, and we draw names out at random' process). It was really cool to be able to give some free stuff to some of the people who had come and joined us during the con.

Comments are welcome. Otherwise, see you all next year!

16 January 2009

Mouse Guard RPG: Actual Play Impressions

Just a quick post to note that I played a one-shot game of this on Monday night, with the pre-generated "Trouble in Grasslake" mission from the book. We had a lot of fun, and the game seemed to work in all the places that reading it led me to expect that it would.

We had a few rough areas with certain rules, but nothing serious - they were all things that would be easily dealt with if we had a few sessions of familiarity (or just an actual book to flick through instead of a printed out pdf). We had a major conflict, which ran surprisingly easily given that it's more involved in the reading. That might be partly because a really good early roll made it fairly short, but I think that was pretty minor - the options were pretty straightforward as we dealt with each in turn. Tactically we probably should have all been thinking more seriously but that will come in time.

Most importantly, we had a great time. The mission played out well, with the major plot and main subplot both giving a lot of entertainment. We skipped one of the suggested subplots, which never quite fitted in, so no great loss there. I also mainly hit the mice with conditions as the result of failed tests, because that was what the fiction called for. The one complication that I remember came in the player turn and led to some great drama between the guard mice as an ill-advised action by one mouse became fairly public knowledge.

Overall impressions: fantastic! I am hoping to run or play some more at Kapcon tomorrow.

15 January 2009

The Sky Road by Ken MacLeod

Well, I made it to the end of the Fall Revolution series again. This one is my second favorite after The Star Fraction. A nice, fairly hopeful end to the series.

10 January 2009

The Cassini Division by Ken MacLeod

Third in the Fall Revolution Series, this deals with the aftermath of The Stone Canal's events from the point of view of the defenders of the communist Union that controls most of the Solar System. The key question is what to do about the posthuman upload civilisation on Jupiter, that has been generally hostile for some decades and has just changed into a new phase. Our point of view character is a hard soldier who is all for dropping a few thousand comets on the planet and killing them all, but various people she meets along the way are keen to convince her that perhaps one shouldn't just wipe out other civilisations just because they might later be a threat to us?

A good one.

The Stone Canal by Ken MacLeod

I remember this being the most confusing of the Fall Revolution novels, and it still is on re-reading. It is packed with more ideas than the others, and none seem quite as completely explicated. Still, it's interesting to see the story of a couple of characters you met once each in The Star Fraction played out in full over the course of a couple of hundred years here (this pattern continues in the other books, each is a story that is tangential to that first novel).

Still, there's plenty here to like, and the ideas are fascinating to think about, even if I would have liked to have them developed further in the novel.

The Alchemist's Apprentice by Dave Duncan

A fun Venetian murder mystery/conspiracy novel following the apprentice of a descendant of Nostradamus. Technically it's a fantasy novel, but the magical elements are few and hardly rate compared to the romantic poltical wheeling and dealing of the main character as he tries to solve a murder, in the flamboyant manner expected of a Venetian nobleman (even if his family happens to be destitute).

Light and enjoyable.