29 March 2014

Book Update

I'm tracking reading again, here's this year so far:


  • Of Dice and Men by David Ewalt. Another history of D&D, this from a more personal side than Playing At The World. Perhaps a little much of his own history with the game, although I expect that's aimed more at readers who don't have as much a history with roleplaying games as I do.
  • All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka. I was interested enough by the trailers for the upcoming Tom Cruise-starring big movie adaptation to look for the original. It's short, but a really good piece of science fiction. The conceit is that the main character gets caught in a time loop while fighting to defend the planet from aliens. As you'd expect, each time through he learns a bit more to survive longer, but the story goes a few unexpected places. A great read.
  • Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. Interesting space opera about a terrible empire that enforces peace an order by a variety of ruthless methods. Plays with some transhuman concepts - the narrator is a distributed intelligence - a warship mind with a large number of bodies at its disposal. 
  • Marbeck and the King-in-waiting by John Pilkington. Second in an Elizabethan spy/mystery series. Good, but not outstanding.
  • A Blind Goddess by James Benn. Latest in the Billy Boyle Second World War mystery series. Continues the same high standard.
  • He Drank, and Saw the Spider by Alex Bledsoe. The latest outing in the Eddie LaCrosse hard boiled fantasy series, which gets better and better as it goes. If hard-boiled fantasy mysteries sound the least bit interesting, you should read this whole series.
  • The Fell Sword by Miles Cameron. Second part in what is shaping up to be a big fantasy series. I didn't like this as much as the first - this opens up the world a lot, with more characters and more places, and I'm not a big fan of sprawling fantasy epics with lots of different point of view characters. That said, it's a good story so I'll be reading the next instalment.  


  • Libriomancer by Jim C Hines. Light, fun supernatural adventure story. Lots of nice ideas based on magic powered by ideas in fiction. 
  • Shaman by Kim Stanley Robinson. Explores ice age life from the point of view of a young shaman's apprentice. A good story, focussed on the day to day life of a stone age group. 
  • All In Scarlet Uniform by Adrian Goldsworthy. Latest in the series about the Peninsular War. Not as compelling as the previous episodes, but solid.
  • The Desert of Souls by Howard Andrew Jones. Sword and sorcery in Haroun al-Rashid's Babylon. Absolutely fantastic, Jones really brings the world to life - both the historical and fantastical sides. The main characters are really great, too.
  • Nexus by Ramez Naam. Nearish future technothriller about a drug that creates telepathic links between users. A lot of outstanding ideas about how human enhancement technologies could go (and how they might be resisted). Warning: some of the bad things the bad guys do with these technologies are rather disturbing.
  • Measuring America by Andro Linklater. A history of the standardisation of measurements through the lens of the conquest (and measurement) of the United States. Interesting, but a bit unfocussed (I ended up reading it in pieces, in between other books).
  • The Bones of the Old Ones by Howard Andrew Jones. Follow-up to The Desert of Souls, and just as good.


  • The King in Yellow by Robert W Chambers. Inspired by True Detective, I read this. Well, re-read in some cases (I had read a couple of the stories before). Interesting, especially the way Chambers's King in Yellow is not much like the version I'd come to know via the Call of Cthulhu game.
  • Master of War by David Gilman. Medieval military adventure, following an archer who goes through the Battle of Crecy and the campaign around it. Very good.
  • Crux by Ramez Naam. Follow-up to Nexus. A bit less fresh as it's mainly developing the ideas he's already introduced. That said, I think his world is heading towards a singularity (or something like it), so these developments are interesting to watch. I'm looking forward to part three.
  • The Fractal Prince by Hannu Rajaniemi. Follow-up to The Quantum Thief. Filled with just as many crazy trans- and post- human ideas and lifestyles. I found the plot a bit easier to follow than the first one, although it's another insane high tech heist story at heart.
  • Codex Born by Jime C Hines. Follow up to Libriomancer.

Game Update

I've been playing a bunch of Torchbearer with the Monday crew, which has been great fun. After a second session total party kill, they've got a second party adventuring to some success. We'll soon have someone at level three!

So far they've dealt with the introductory dungeon in the book, a bandit lair in a ruined dwarven hall, and looted an ancient magical library for one character's enemy (long story). Next up is a lead on a sealed tomb, which I am sure will go just fine.

What makes the game work is a very finely tuned approach to old school D&D. In particular, the rules for light, encumbrance, time, and deteriorating conditions manage to evoke the tension of exploring unknown caverns full of danger in the hope of loot. However, unlike the original, these are fun. It's some combination of the abstractions they use (and thus simplicity) and the fact that the whole system is well tuned, so these constraints matter quite a lot.

I also got in a game of Life on Mars when there were some absences. This is meditative, thoughtful game. It reminds me a lot of The Quiet Year, although many details differ. Life on Mars covers the first expedition to Mars, and we got to know our crew very well along the way. It manages to convey the close quarters with your crewmates, the loneliness and distance from Earth, and also the day to day operations and potential disasters of the mission as you go. I was pleased that our mission returned home safely, and that we in fact discovered life on mars in the last months there (which was my crew member's obsession). Great fun, recommended. Probably not that much replayability, although I expect that playing with a different group of people would be very different. The mission parameters and allowed actions remain the same (although there's some randomness in there too).

23 January 2014

Kapcon 2014 review

Kapcon this year was mainly games on demand for me, plus two rounds of adventure squad, the new family event run by me and another parent/gamer.

Round One: Torchbearer (Three Squires). Pitched as "D&D but with a focus on packing," I got a keen group. They got about halfway through the intro adventure, getting some decent loot and closure from the place. Everyone was interested and engaged, and it was a lot of fun.

Round Two: Black Stars Rise beta (Renovation). This was good. A little slow to start but once I had a handle on the weirdness and everyone had their character's sorted, it rocked. The slowly growing awareness of the alien weirdness that had targeted them really worked. Top marks for our doctor, who tried to burn down the building a couple of times in the middle of the game. Finally everyone else came around to his point of view and they blew the whole place up (they worked out that the place had been built as a beacon/summoning portal). Solid, but needs more GM advice - a bit of guidance about how to approach each set and also more about building interesting weirdness. Watch this one.

Round Three: The Quiet Year. This was not my first choice, but the game left for the final three people in games on demand. It was a quiet and thoughtful game, without any post-apocalyptic weirdness. Just people in a hard place trying to get along. I still love The Quiet Year.

Round Four: Torchbearer (Skogenby). One returning player, and a bunch of others keen to try it. It was a crazy ride as they managed to score a fair bit of loot until finally meeting their match with one the big bad under the hill. They left the dwarf underground, possessed. Still fun! I think I might be getting the hang of running it.

Rounds Five and Six: Adventure Squad. Games for families (specifically 5-12 year old kids with their parents present) was a bit of an experiment but went well on the day. I ran a homebrewed Hogwarts game in the first sub-round, then returned to it for the second half. Next I did a homebrew/streamlined D&D game with J V West's adventure Howler, which is short and admirably creepy and weird. The kids generally enjoyed themselves, and I hear that one wants to run his own games already, so the experiment was definitely a success. I did find that running games for kids was both different to what I'm used to and much more tiring! Also played were Hero Kids, Golden Sky Stories, Mice & Mystics, and King of Tokyo.

Round Seven: The Regiment (Mission Boston). An energetic final round as we played this awesome SNAFU of a mission. We didn't do too badly, destroying a few German positions and one bridge with the loss of only a few of our own squad (all the PCs survived, although separated at the end).

Overall, a fun and relaxed Kapcon this year, and I was pleased to get in some play of Black Stars Rise and Torchbearer. I would have liked to play Sagas of the Icelanders and Life On Mars (I got my copy from a group kickstarter at the con - looks lovely!).