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.