Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Revenge Solves Everything

When stealth runs go wrong...
In Dishonored you play a good man brung low by the iniquities of the tyrannous, or so we are told. The truth is, you have options, few of which are entirely suggestive of a good man, but rather offer you a choice between a brutal 'poetic' justice and the razor-edge finality of personal vengeance. The Loyalists who spring you from prison to aid their cause speak of your unique contribution, and given that at that stage you haven't gained the favour of the Outsider yet, there really is only one thing that you, as Corvo Attano, are much better at than almost anyone: Making people into dead people.

I guess it's true what they say about a good man going to war.

The defining characteristic of a run in Dishonored is its level of 'chaos'. To what extent have your actions increased the general shittiness of the crapsack city of Dunwall? The primary factor determining this level is how many people you have killed, be they enemies, civilians or even the barely more-than-zombie weepers in the final throes of the rat plague; corpses mean chaos and chaos means corpses, as more chaos means more rats, more weepers and more death.

So, a low chaos run is the 'good' path, right? Well, sort of. It's probably the better path, overall, but it's not a nice option. As noted before, the nonlethal options are in a lot of ways nastier than honest murder, however much 'justice' may be attached to them. The High Overseer is a corrupt and monstrous hypocrite who uses his 'faith' as a maul against others while violating its strictures for shiggles. Among his crimes are the abduction of children to be trained as Overseers and the murder of a prostitute (or three) he believed to be blackmailing him. There is a certain narrative symmetry in exposing his crimes simply by marking him as anathema to his own order. Likewise, Slackjaw the gang boss will proudly explain how apt his punishment for the Pendleton twins is, having them shipped off as mutilated slaves for their own mines.

Whatever they may have done to deserve these fates, and however much they may avert the increase of chaos in the city, it would take a warped perception indeed to see them as a righteous course. Rather, the point of Dishonored is more that there is no righteous course. As Bioshock Infinite subverted the moral path of its predecessor by presenting choices that were mechanically meaningless and all led to the same deterministic ending, so Dishonored subverts the same expectations by providing equally or more horrid alternatives.

But why, you might fairly wonder, do these acts of horror produce less chaos than a simple kill? Perhaps it is because there is an appearance of social justice, in place of personal vengeance. When you brand Campbell you force the state to treat him as if he had earned the brand (and, as various notes will tell you, he has done.) The disappearance of the Pendletons is more mysterious, but less personal than the discovery of their stabbed corpses in the Golden Cat 'bathhouse'. When the assassin strikes, the city is at the mercy of a lone nutter with a shiv; when shit happens...

I guess that's just Chinatown.

Many articles have considered the question of Corvo's dishonour, and by what standard, if any, his conduct after the prison break can be considered 'honourable'. Some, in particular this article, make the point that while to an 18th/19th century pseudo-British perspective his actions (spying, murdering, witchcraft, trap setting and bomb throwing) are appalling, they adhere rather more to the vendetta code of the Mediterranean, and in particular Italy.

I would like to make a different point, and one only tangentially related to the protagonist's concrete conduct. Consider the discussion on the boat as Samuel returns Corvo and the rescued Lady Emily to the Hound Pits Pub. Samuel praises Corvo for 'doing the business' on the Pendletons. "What business is that?" Emily asks, to which Samuel awkwardly replies: "Grown up business, m'lady."

Emily is the future Empress of the Isles, although she is yet a child, but the Loyalists shelter her from their own actions and arrange for her to be instructed in etiquette while they plan insurrection on her behalf. Is this because she is a child? Perhaps, but perhaps it is because the dishonour is not Corvo's at all. Corvo was never an honourable man, although perhaps he was once a good one. It is the Empire that is dishonoured by the murder of the Empress and the ascendancy of a treacherous spymaster.

We're never actually told whether the late Empress was an effective ruler, but she was the rightful ruler, and Emily is the figurehead of the Loyalists not because she is expected to be perfect, but because she is the rightful heir. Her ascension to the throne is just and proper; it is the honourable thing, however terrible the deeds that lead to it.

Corvo Attano is not a shamed man fighting to regain his honour. His honour, such as it is, was always a bloody and personal thing and no frame in the world could have taken it from him. Rather, he is fighting for the honour of his country, his Empress, and for his daughter figure if not actually for his daughter. Like Serenity's Operative, he is the monster whose deeds bring about a better world than he has a right to live in. He is the scapegoat who bears the sins of all; or perhaps the angel with the fiery sword standing at the east gate of Eden, protecting paradise but ever standing with his back to its perfection.

The Escapist article also notes that Corvo is the weapon of the conspiracy, rather than a member. I would note also that the Loyalist nobles never give Corvo directions on how to undertake their missions. They are King Henry asking who will rid them of a turbulent priest, and none of their doing if the means of ridding are not within the rules of war. Maybe they thought that he would call the Pendletons out properly, as with Lord Shaw and the bizarre duel by proxy, or at least intended to claim so if the awkward questions were ever asked.

This of course begs the question of the nature of Corvo's work for the Empress. He is referred to as her bodyguard, but his skill set is not typical of that profession. His alertness is given no special note, his defensive fighting is of a fairly common standard. As I noted in the opening, what Corvo Attano is good at is taking alive people and making them into dead people. If he protected the Empress it was surely through the knowledge that attacking her could elicit a visit - just one - from the Lord Protector. One wonders if the 'bodyguard' job wasn't just a cover to explain his frequent proximity to the Empress, or if the Lord Protectorship might have been his door to a world of honour; a door slammed in his face when he is forced back to the path of the assassin.

Poor Corvo; was he ever destined to be more than a blade in the hands of an Empress, of a conspiracy, or of a remote and uncaring player? Is the whole game really a comment on the psychology of the first person shooter?

Monday, 15 December 2014

On gaming

A week ago, give or take, I posted the following on G+:

Dear IoD,

I'm pretty sure it's not you; it's me. Well, maybe partly it's you.

My life has changed significantly, to the point where we basically no longer want the same things. I've got a daughter now, and all in all I'm looking for something which requires less of a commitment.

I wish you all the best going forward beyond the reset, but I can't see myself coming with you.

All the best,
Luke

The Isles of Darkness have been the focus of my (RP) gaming life for a while now, but it's been an increasingly unsatisfying focus. Now, partly this is due to flaws in the system, partly to flaws in the society and partly to flaws in me; so it goes. Lately, however, it's simply been the fact that I don't have the time for a game that demands weekly attendance to remain 'competitive'*.

Currently, my enthusiasm belongs to my fortnightlyish online games - Agents of CROSSBOW, a Fate Core paranormal espionage game with lashings of ninjas; and a Dresden Files game in which I'm playing a vampire civil servant - and my future involvement in No Rest for the Wicked, a Warhammer 40K LARP with the sole but significant drawback of being mostly run in Scotland.

I've done a bit of soul-searching, and I think that this is basically just a natural progression; a growth process. It's time for something new, and moreover something different.

The IoD was for a while very intense and rewarding, and it introduced me to my girlfriend, the mother of my daughter. I will miss it. But there has also been a lot of frustration that I won't miss and I dearly hope that I will not lose contact with the people I've met in the IoD, who are increasingly the only thing I've been sticking around for.

I just hope I don't disappoint too many of the new recruits who were lured in by my mush on the advertising art.



*The fact that I feel a need to be 'competitive' is also a part of the problem.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

The Quality of Mercy

Thankfully, this humane alternative is available.
Man, Dishonoured's 'good' path is dark.

Don't feel like murdering the cruel, corrupt High Overseer because you feel that there should be a better way than answering evil with evil? Well, there is an alternative. You can brand fully half of his face, marking him as an excommunicate heretic and casting him out onto the streets among those who have most cause to hate him.

Still; it's not like you killed him or anything.

I can't decide if it's an ironic statement on ludonarrative dissonance or just self-consciously grimdark.

I am pretty much convinced that 'my' side is as bad as theirs, for the most part; it's probably something to do with all of the loyalists being creepy-faced caricatures who meet in a dive bar and drink wine as they plan the revolution in which the people will surely be with them.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Commentary

Here is my impression of a BBC News comment stream:

Poster 1 - I thought BBC News was supposed to report news!
Poster 2 - The BBC is a government mouthpiece!
Poster 5 - Rar Israel!
Poster 7 - Rar Palestine!
Poster 10 - An interesting piece. Thanks BBC.
Poster 14 - Fuck the license fee! USA! USA!



Sadly the comments for the Have Your Say pieces are more:

Poster 1 - I disagree with you.
Poster 2 - I also disagree with you, and will raise you a personal slur.
Poster 3 - I see this personal slur and raise you accusations of benefit fraud.
Poster 4 - Rational defence of original post.
Poster 5 - People like the original poster and poster 4 are dragging this country down.

And it's all downhill from there. My sister once posted a piece about why the ConDemNation meant she was going back to voting labour and was practically told she was retroactively responsible for the rise of Hitler and the National Socialists.

Early Thoughts on Dishonoured

"The guards will be looking out for you, and since there are no
high-def printing presses in this industrial era city, it only
seems fair to give you a mask to make you super-visible to any
but the stupidest guards."
Now, technically nothing I have to say about Dishonoured can count as 'early' thoughts, given that it's been out for ages and I got it for about £2.50, but that's a maybe as King Gustav of Sweden once said and these at least are my thoughts on the early game.

Storywise, it's all a bit 'well, yes'. I kind of wanted to shank the conspirators on the way in because it was laughably obvious which ones they were. Moreover, although the Empress is supposed to be the good from which the Empire has fallen, she came off as weak and ineffectual more than trapped by an impossible situation (plague, deadly killer rats hordes;) it might have helped if they were a little more subtle in their hints that she and Corvo were totally doing it. I'm not sure if the Princess is supposed to be Corvo's daughter or if she knows it or is just way okay with Mum's new fella; perhaps it doesn't matter.

Anyhugh, you get captured and then sprung from jail and make your escape; picking up what appears to be a flick sword en route. At rebel headquarters you are told that you are needed to eliminate several key members of the new government and given a mask to hide your identity. This begs a couple of questions, such as: How is your actual appearance that famous in a pre-television world? Even if it is, how is a metal skull mask any less obvious in the open street? And isn't the point of an assassin's mask to hide your identity, and isn't that more or less pointless if your only identity becomes that of the scary guy in the mask?

As the icing on the cake, a god/devil/spirit dude gives you magical powers, because why not? Seriously, he's some sort of universal trickster dude, so he's pretty much 'have some powers; use them as you will'. The main power is Blink, a short range teleport useful for travel and stealth.

I do appreciate the grey and darker grey morality of the whole thing. Pretty much everyone who isn't dead or kidnapped is a complete dick, so I'm not going to feel too bad if I turn the whole thing into a dystopian nightmare with my choices and stealth failures.

As of this writing I'm in the middle of the first real mission of the game and struggling a bit. I confess I was thrown by the failure of a first person sneaker to be Thief. That first person aspect also makes it hella difficult to maintain a decent peripheral awareness, so half the time I end up being shanked in the side while trying to sneakily take down a guard with his back to me.

I also at one point fell through a tree that I wasn't apparently able to land on... after ninjaing the rest of the area completely. So embarrassing.

I'm now getting more comfortable with using Blink for stealth and hiding behind cover instead of just in shadows. It also helps that I'm using the correct button to block (ph3ar my 1337 skillzorz!)

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

If someone asks you if you're a god...

What is a god?

You know, no-one ever explained this to me, and I don't think in retrospect that I did a good job of it as a teacher. Christian worship was just something that we had in assembly, and we looked at other gods in history or RE, but we never really talked about what it meant to be, or more to the point to have, a god. Or gods.

I think this is a significant shortcoming in the education system in a world in which religious debate still plays a major part.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

NaNo'14

November rolls around again, and I am intending to write another batch of short stories. After this, I'm going to bundle up what I've got and ask people to read and comment, find the best set and epublish; see how it does.

Now, that's mostly just fishing. The real money in epublishing (and when I say 'real money' I'm probably talking tens, even twenties of pounds a year) is in novel series, so I am also looking for the short that will expand into that. If I find it early in the month, I may focus on that instead.

Either way, it's going to be a writing intensive month, as always.

Gunpoint

A split effect showing the action and grid-hacking modes.
Since I am unlikely to be joining the cool kids in playing Beyond Earth before the summer sales, I picked up super cheap indie game Gunpoint, a fun little platform stealth game overlaid with a rerouting puzzle game.

You play Richard Conway, freelance spy. After a potential client is murdered, you are offered a series of jobs closely related to the murder. Each mission consists of a 2D cutaway elevation of the target building or buildings. The player must navigate Conway through this plan, avoiding or incapacitating guards and bypassing doors to reach and hack (or occasionally steal) the mission objective.

Your tools for doing this are Conway's Bullfrog hypertrousers and Dropshock trenchcoat, which allow him to leap and fall incredible distances, and the Crosslink, a gadget which allow you to view and manipulate the electrical connections within a building, linking doors and other devices to various switches in order to bypass the building's security systems. The guards ranged against you will shoot on sight (although only the suit-wearing Professionals can see in the dark) and kill you with one shot, so stealth is vital to successfully completing the missions. Upgrades can increase your jumping strength and charge up speed, and optional gadgets allow you to silently fall or break through windows, dodge a small percentage of shots, or hack the guards' guns and make them go off. Finally, you can acquire a gun of your own, which allows you to menace guards (but not Professionals) into compliance; or shoot them, but that summons the cops to block your exit.

Gunpoint is a fun and only occasionally frustrating little game. It is quite short, but there are enough optional extras and branching paths to give some replay value, and a level editor if that's your thing. It also has a Steam achievement called 'Acknowledged Ludonarrative Dissonance'

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Gamergate, or how I learned to start worrying and hate the comments

I've written before on sexism in gaming, specifically Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed Unity, but I've not mentioned Gamergate. As a casual gaming commentator, this feels remiss; like a home design pundit refusing to at least acknowledge the statement of an indoor pachydermal installation.

I'm not going to go into background detail, as anyone reading this journal almost certainly knows them, but just in brief: Gamergate is a movement within the gaming community dedicated - they say - to the purity of gaming journalism and the elimination of the corruption created by certain female game designers and critics determines to use sex to foist a gynocentric agenda on the holy, phallocentric temple of gaming. In reality, it is a campaign of toxic hatred targeting female critics and designers, ranging from passive-aggressive comments to actual death threats.

I find the whole thing to be upsetting, not just because people like Zoe Quinn (the designer of the indie game Depression Quest) and Anita Sarkeesian (of the Youtube channel Feminist Frequency and, specifically, the critical video essays Tropes vs Women in video games) have been subjected to such a vicious tide of vitriol and hate, but because it reveals a level of toxicity which I would not have thought possible. The sustained death threats are bad enough, or the threats of rape, but what truly shocks me, after a decade and a half of regular internet access, is that there are people on the internet, people who purport to represent a community of which I am a peripheral member, who actually believe that they are right and righteous in threatening children.

Not long ago, Sarkeesian cancelled a speaking engagement at the University of Utah after a graphic threat was made to perpetrate 'the worst school shooting in history' if the engagement went ahead.

What the actual fuck is that?

I'm not going to start on the Utah Police and their refusal to conduct weapon searches of people entering an institute of higher education which had been threatened with a massacre, because I would probably never stop. In the same way, I'm not going to talk about rape threats, because it would end up as a meaningless spew of expressions of horror and disbelief. I will, however, reiterate my utter horror that there is anyone in the world that thinks that this is in any way something that is not just okay, but right, and that there is a substantial body of gamers who support them to one degree or another.

Now, in fairness (because I like to be fair, possibly to the point of fault, although not to the point, you may notice, of actually putting any links to Gamergate sites; I'm fair, but I absolutely have a side in this*,) the incident created some schism in Gamergate itself, because apparently some of them are able to see that there is a degree of evil that isn't legitimate protest against journalistic corruption (although the lower level hate-speech really should have tipped them off, but internet comments are a natural breeding ground for complete idiocy) I am still disappointed that it hasn't ended it completely; that the sane end of the spectrum haven't looked at this, or the other death threats, and said: "Well, fuck; we're part of something pretty damned vile here, aren't we?"

Gamergate, in short, has actively and materially damaged my faith in human nature.

*In Gamergate terms, this makes me a 'white knight' hoping that backing the feminazi agenda will get me laid. If I believed that the world as a whole was as misogynistic as Gamergate, such that merely expressing this opinion made me irresistible catnip to any woman not completely ground down by hate, I would be too mired in depression to ever have sex again.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Warhammer 40,000 - Dawn of War

Wrapping up my retrospective, I find my way back to the original Dawn of War, a base-building RTS that is now ten years old.

I heard somebody say burn, baby burn!
The original Dawn of War was built around a campaign which introduced the Blood Ravens Chapter of the Space Marines. Across a series of missions, the player guided the Blood Ravens against Orks, Eldar and Chaos Marines, ultimately setting off the chain of events which would lead to the climax of DoWII.

The meat of the game, however, lies in the skirmish and multiplayer modes, which allowed single player, co-op or competitive scenarios to be played out, with or without AI opponents. With a good selection of maps and customisation options, DoW provided a lot of replay value outside the main campaign, even before the add ons arrived.

There were four available factions in the base game - Space Marines, Eldar, Orks and Chaos Marines - and a lively spread of abilities between them. The Marines (both types) were hard wearing and hard hitting, while the Orks were numerous as anything and the Eldar had a lot of tech upgrades and special abilities, and vicious weaponry to make up for a fairly low toughness. Multiplayer missions could be annihilation-based or take-and-hold. In either case the correct balance of rapid expansion and base consolidation was critical.

Winter Assault added a new campaign, focused on the new playable faction, the Imperial Guard, whose thing was basically tanks. They had one basic unit, blokes with lasguns, but a lot of armour options.
Like Risk, but for funner!

Dark Crusade changed the tempo of the series with the addition of a turn-based campaign mode, in which the player's faction competes with others for territory by fighting mission battles. In addition, the faction commander could now earn persistent wargear upgrades instead of having upgrade options in-mission. Elite Honour Guard units would begin attack missions at the Commander's side, while Garrison units and buildings could be established to make it harder for enemies to retake territory from you.

Again, the add-on increased the number of available factions by adding the mecha-undead Necrons and the holier-than-thou Tau to the mix.

Soulstorm built on the base of Dark Crusade, with a new campaign map stretching over three planets and a moon, and brought the number of playable factions to nine with the puritanical Sisters of Battle and the decadent Dark Eldar. Each of these factions had a unique resource; in addition to Requisition and Power, the Sisters could gather Faith to power their special abilities, while the Dark Eldar collected souls to the same end.

The strength of the game was the combination of the rich 40K setting and an ending that allowed there to be a massive number of things shooting other things at once while retaining a high level of resolution. In particular a large Ork vs. Imperial Guard battle could run to a couple of hundred models a side without slowing down on the basic recommended system, and the major stronghold missions could begin with upwards of a hundred enemy being tracked.

The single-player campaigns in the original game and Winter Assault were not the greatest, but the skirmish mode made up for that, and the non-linear campaigns in Dark Crusade and Soulstorm had much more replay value, as each of the seven or nine factions called for a different approach. At the top end there is a degree of rush tactics, but the balance of abilities means that you can never just point and run; your strongest mob will be butchered on a base run if you don't box a little clever. On the other hand, it's not overly complicated, never leaving the player wallowing in a sea of options.

These then are the three 40K games I've played (I should get Space Hulk sometime, I really should). Of the three, Dawn of War is probably the most replayable, although for multiplayer the Last Stand mode in DoWII - three heroes stand in an arena and fight off wave after wave of enemies - takes the prize. It's so very simple, and yet I reckon not one person has ever played it without clearly understanding at some stage that there is an easy way to win it and if only those other two idiots got that you would rule the world, damint!

Monday, 29 September 2014

Warhammer 40,000 - Dawn of War II

In the Emperor's name!
Continuing my reverse retrospective we go from Space Marine to Dawn of War II, the sequel to the pure RTS Dawn of War.

DoWII and its two major add-ons (Chaos Rising and Retribution) tell the story of the Blood Ravens and their homeworlds in sub-sector Aurelia through a squad-level RTS/tactical RPG. Eschewing the traditional base-building elements of an RTS, the game gives you control of one hero and a number of squads. The squads available are each represented by a sergeant and 2-3 marines, and cover each of the Marine specialities: Tactical (Sergeant Tarkus), Devastator (Avitus), Assault (Thaddeus) and Scouts (Cyrus). Later in the game, you also gain access to a Dreadnought, that has and needs no backup.

The action opens on the desert world of Calderis, before opening out to include the jungle planet Typhon and the sprawling hive world of Meridian. This is an elegant aesthetic decision, as it starts the player out in the largely empty landscapes of Calderis, then hits you with the lush greens of Typhon before moving to the intricate cityscapes of the hive world, and finally mixing it all up by dropping Gigeresque Tyranid structures all over the shop. The initial enemies are Orks, then Eldar, and finally the Tyranids, as the ultimate goal becomes the defeat of an incoming Hive Fleet.

The gameplay is very satisfying, and the tactical combat element is especially rewarding of thought. The squads are distinctive, each with their own strengths and weaknesses: Tarkus is the tank, Avitus ranged DPS, Thaddeus melee DPS and Cyrus infiltration and sniping. Thaddeus and the Force Commander also have charge abilities which are critical in the later game for pinning the more numerous enemy and keeping them from overwhelming your troops. The game engine makes cover your best buddy, and the context-sensitive move controls make it easy to exploit it.
Mmm. Flamethrower...

The RPG elements come in the sections between missions, when you get to upgrade and equip your troops. There is also degree of mission selection/. Critical missions have to be done, but there are optional missions which can not always all be completed, forcing you to prioritise depending on your play style and the rewards for each mission.

The game's greatest problem is a slightly shaky integration of some of the late game options. In particular, switching your squads into Terminator armour messes with some of their abilities. Since Terminators (and the Dreadnought) also smash through cover and operate best at close range, bringing them in tends to reduce your strategy to 'close in and punch faces'.

Chaos Rising adds two more locations, the space hulk Judgement of Carrion and the frozen world of Aurelia, and unsurprisingly throws chaos cultists and marines into the mix as adversaries. The Chaos Marines are among the toughest adversaries in the game, having functionally the same strengths and weaknesses as your own Blood Ravens makes them much more challenge to counter tactically. The game also introduces chaos taint, a trait which can provide your squads with cool new abilities at the cost of becoming rampaging demon beasts. In the mid-game, one of your sergeants (or the techmarine, if you keep your sergeants Chaos-free) goes rogue and it turns out that your Chapter Master is a rampaging would-be demon beast, leading to the game's downer ending.
Best hat.

Retribution concludes the story with a battle royale across the sub-sector, climaxing in a smackdown with the Chapter Master-turned-demon prince. It's new planets are the wreck of Typhon after an Exterminatus fleet blows it to bedrock and the equally (but less recently) exterminated planet Cyrene.

Retribution also allows you to play as any one of six factions: Blood Ravens, Imperial Guard, Ork Freebooters, Tyranids, Chaos Marines and Eldar. Each faction has four heroes, who fight without squads, and additionally has units which can be built/summoned from base structures present in the missions. The RPG element is greatly simplified and the RTS played back up again. The heroes are roughly split in each group into melee DPS, ranged DPS, caster/healer and sneak, although the Chaos Marines lack a sneak, the Blood Ravens' replace the healer with a techmarine 'summoner' and the Tyranids just get a Hive Tyrant.

Sadly, the campaign is very linear, with little or no variation in missions between the races, meaning that the tactics employed vary, but not the nature of the threat or objective. It would have been good to see a mixture of the two.

Dawn of War II is an interesting and satisfying game, not least because it actually presents three very different playing experiences built on the same engine (more counting the variant styles of Retribution). It's not perfect, but all in all it's a keeper for me.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine

Being the first in a kind of reverse-retrospective of Warhammer 40K computer games.
I am an Ultramarine! I laugh in the face of peril, at a Codex-approved pitch and timbre.
The third iteration of the Warhammer 40,000 RPG is Deathwatch, in which you get to play Space Marines, members of the Imperium of Mankind's elite corps of genetically enhanced warrior-monks, which has always struck me as a terrible idea for a roleplaying game. It would make a great skirmish game, however, and it certainly has the makings of a terrific shooter.

Nobility, honour, and bloody great guns.
Enter Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine, from Relic Entertainment/THQ.

Relic and THQ were already known in the 40K community for the Dawn of War series. The original Dawn of War was a real-time strategy game in the mould of Command and Conquer, while Dawn of War II combined a small-unit RTS with elements of tactical roleplaying. Both games were well-received and expectations for Space Marine, a third-person shoot-and-slash, were high.

The previous games had come to focus strongly on the Blood Ravens, a Marine Chapter created specifically for the games. The Blood Ravens are marked by a strong sense of individuality mingled with a reverence of tradition and discipline, which makes them uniquely suited to be the leads in a game with a single character focus. However, for whatever reason - possibly the tangling of canon created by the multiple possible endings of the last expansion for DoWII - the Blood Ravens feature only in a small cameo in Space Marine, and instead the lead is Captain Titus of the Ultramarines.

The Ultramarines are the Marines' Marines, religiously devoted to the doctrinal guidelines laid down by their founder in the Codex Astartes. They are... not fun. This makes them an odd choice of lead, but then it turns out that Captain Titus is, basically, the worst Ultramarine ever. He improvises, deviates from Codex doctrine, switches between assault, tactical and heavy-weapon loadouts on a whim, and actively encourages his newly-minted Marine sidekick to regard the sacred Codex as 'guidelines'. It makes him a more interesting character, but it does beg the question why make him an Ultramarine in the first place.
Turn, duck, EVISCERATE!

But anyway, enough of the fluff; let's talk about the meat.

The basic gristle of the game is pretty slickly done. You can walk, run or combat roll; you can aim (slowing movement), or shoot from the hip, or use the right mouse button to attack with your melee weapon. Your health meter is surrounded by a shining border representing your armour, which apparently regenerates. Once that runs out, your actual health drops off alarmingly fast. You can use a stun and execute option to regain health (which is a bit odd and more suited to the vampiric Blood Angels). Meanwhile a Fury metre builds to provide a burst of super-powered melee or slow-time sniping once you've killed enough enemies.

The combat rocks... the first few times. Eventually though a sort of fatigue sets in, and you come to treasure the mini-boss enemies just because they break the monotony. Aside from a few opportunities for sniper fire, each fight tends to begin with grenades and sweeping automatic fire at neck height, then progress rapidly to close up work. There are a few manoeuvre variations in close combat, but you really have to look them up; the game doesn't do much to help with combos, so for the most part it's all the basic set and repeat as needed.

If the game had more variety elsewhere, this would be fine, but it's actually incredibly linear. Titus' inability to climb or jump limits him to a single path through the world, and forces a specific approach to every problem. Feel like flanking the Ork horde and laying down a withering fire from cover? Yeah, only if it's one of those levels; otherwise you're pretty much standing behind a projecting piece of wall and trying to whittle them down before you go to melee. Conversely, if you'd rather melee the heavily-armed Chaos Marines and the map is a long, long hall, don't think you might find your way around.

The game also lacks a context-sensitive environment; you can bump into scenery, but you can't stick to it, lean around or over it, climb on it or vault it. In a world where sandbox games are the norm and even linear shooters are represented by the likes of Gears of War (aka 'Fun with Cover: the Computer Game'), this feels like a huge absence. Maybe standing there and taking your hits is more Ultramarine, but as a result the game has little to no variation, which severely limits the possibilities for repeat play.

Space Marine represents the ultimate evolution of Relic/THQ's 40K games, bizarrely from greater variety to less. It has fun moments, but ultimately you lack agency, making a only few limited weapon choices (you can only carry up to four ranged weapons at a time) in the game. It's a shame, as it is nearly a very good game.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

I'm a privileged middle class white European male; ask me how

Both of these men are too damned pretty to be cast as the
'everyman', but that's not why one of them would be
overlooked by a Hollywood producer.
So, I was reading an article by a successful author, as I sometimes do, and also as I sometimes do, I recognised a close analogue to something in my own experience; something that suddenly felt worth talking about.

This is the article, by Kameron Hurley: It's called Why I Stopped Writing About White People; which is an attention getter if nothing else. I won't summarise it, because it's short enough that I should just let you read it yourself.

Okay? I'll try not to just repeat what she said.

If I had any serious money, I would belong to the single most privileged chunk of modern, global society. I'm middle class (I shop in Waitrose and buy their Essential range parmesan cheese), white (well, somewhere between a quarter and an eighth Indian, but barely enough to get stopped at airports), European (English, God help me) straight male (not very macho, but definitely Y-carrying, hetero/cis and happy that way). Okay, I'm a polyamorous gamer, but that's small potatoes.

I say this not as an excuse, but as background for the fact that as a matter of habit, I used to, as Hurley describes, write about white people all the time. It was the natural thing for me to do; I was surrounded by white people. It might have been different if I'd lived in London, but I didn't want to live or go to university in London; I don't like cities. Instead I went to Cambridge (I know, I know; hateful aren't I), which is not exactly a hotbed of racial integration (less from deliberate racism than from the inherent racism which derives from the continuing entanglement of race with the British class system.)

There was a UFO church guy - I forget his name just at the moment; 1960s or 70s era, big hair and porn 'stache - who claimed to have been taken on a spaceship where the aliens created beautiful women of all types for him to make love to. Now, that's creepy as fuck, but also inherently racist, because the types he described were blonde, red-head, brunette, black and Asian; because black and Asian have no subdivisions. Now, I reckon that guy was always going to be a creepy bastard, but it's a fact that you define and discriminate the world based on experience. If there's only one black kid in the class, then that's a defining physical characteristic.

Greater integration at the school stage would not only lead to greater understanding between different cultures and races, it would also do wonders for our creative writing skills, because when your inner and proximal friendship groups include a spectrum of humanity, the rather lazy descriptor 'black' ceases to be of use. For me, that level of awareness only really came when I was teaching in a school which had pupils from Zimbabwe, Pakistan and Mongolia, to name but a few, as well as a housed Romany family whose daughter was the palest thing I had ever seen.

This is probably why it was during my teaching career that I looked back over one of my old science fiction projects - an epic bit of world-building that I have yet to set a satisfactory story in - and realised that almost all of the historical figures I'd written up were white. I was kind of horrified by what I written. There was a multinational Mars mission with two non-Europeans, and one of them was a white American.

So, I changed it, and at first it felt pretty token, and I was more or less sure I'd be discarding the project in shame in the very near future. But then I started thinking about the wider effect. Without planning it, I'd changed one of the pivotal families in the setting to half-black, half-white, made French the dominant language of the Martian working class and begun to derive entirely new categories of class and race based on origin rather than ethnicity. I even took a good long look at the aliens and started to move them away from planets of hats towards more rounded and fully-realised cultures. I'm a trained archaeologist, for fuck's sake; I have no excuse for sloppy culture-building.

At about the same time, I started revising some other stuff, addressing the sexism inherent in just about any mythic base (there are precious few major queens in myth and legend, and most of them don't end well). It was a time of much reflection and consideration.

These days, I'm a lot more careful. I confess, I get jittery about writing other cultures if I don't have the time to research them thoroughly, but I'm also aware that playing it safe (by sticking to 'what I know') is both creatively limiting and intrinsically racist.

Besides, if I wanted to 'write what I know', I wouldn't write fantasy and science fiction in the first place.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Goblin Quest

So, I don't back a lot of Kickstarters, on the grounds of being a modestly penurious father, but this one I didn't hesitate.

Goblin Quest: A tabletop game of fatal ineptitude is the work of columnist and designer of quick and quirky tabletop games (and easy-to-run, high-concept LARP) Grant Howitt. I'm quite a fan of his work in general, there's a heck of a line up of guest artists and writers, and the original short rules I recall being pleasantly anarchic, but specifically what's motivated me to urge you all to back this little beauty is the £15,000 stretch goal: Sean Bean Quest.

"Will Sean Bean ever survive all the way to the end of a film? Find out as you take on the role of five Sean Beans (in sequence, not in parallel) and attempt to endure the slings and arrows of the script. Gruff northern accents are a requirement."
Now, I don't know about you, but I'm dying to know how that could even work. How can you play characters consecutively as a workable game? And what is the trademark status of the name 'Sean Bean'?

So come on, throw a little money Grant's way and let's make Sean Bean Quest a reality/legal nightmare for our age.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Secret Santicore

Because I fervently believe that I work well under pressure, I am doing this thing:

It's a game-based version of Secret Santa, in which you request a roleplaying resource and undertake to deliver one in return, requests being distributed by the organisers.

Click the pic to join in.

Monday, 1 September 2014

#RPGaDAY - Well, what was the point of all that then?


So, RPGaDAY has been and gone, and what have we learned?

Well, we've learned, I think, that we love games, and that sometimes we forget why and how much this is the case.

This month has happened to be a month in which I played precisely no games. I had intended to go to the Norwich, Hatfield and Cambridge IoD games, maybe even the National, and play at least one session each of two separate Skype/TT campaigns. In the end, my Dad got ill, the Norwich games were moved, my daughter came back from Scotland early, my girlfriend had a coffee afternoon in Norwich, if I hadn't been too broke for the National I'd have ended up out of pocket as manflu kept me from attending, and neither Skype game could be scheduled (although both have reasonably firm dates in September). I went to one game, and that was the one that I run, and am getting burned out on.

As tends to happen, this has dampened my enthusiasm for the games involved as I feel out of touch, but thanks to RPGaDAY I am still pumped at the idea of being involved in games. I want to play stuff, I want to run stuff, and that comes from talking all month about exactly what sort of things I want to be doing as I go forward.

I also hope that it will give me some momentum to keep writing blog posts. If nothing else, I owe MattMatt a post on what puts the super in superhero.

Props to David Chapman for the concept, and to all those who've been writing this month.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

#RPGaDAY: Day 31 - Favourite game of all time

Well now, here's a doozy of a question to finish on. I've talked about my favourite campaigns and systems and moments, but I actually don't think that I have an overall favourite RPG because no RPG is complete in itself. There are those with better or worse material in them, but when push comes to shove it isn't until you take the book or books containing the system and the setting and sit down with a bunch of other people that you actually have a game.

With that in mind, I'm going to look at a few of those elements and what I think makes for a good game.

System

We've already looked at this, in some depth, on day 18. Following from that, what I like in a system is flexibility, tactical - but not over complicated - combat and some kind of dramatic narrative system so that you are never entirely at the mercy of the dice, yet still in their shadow if not their thrall.

Setting

A good setting has space to move. I think that's critical, because unless you feel you have the world to play in, then there is always a danger - especially with licensed products - that you will end up feeling constrained by obedience to canon, especially in a licensed product. The necessary space can be achieved either with a vast setting, or a loosely defined one. It gives the PCs the freedom to wriggle, to pull a fast one or slip a mickey without upsetting a defined world history.

In James's A Song of Ice and Fire game, I went to some length to try to have Jaime Lannister offed while in Robb Stark's captivity, just so that I would be on a level playing field with the people who had read the book; especially since I already knew our side wasn't going to win (unless I could manage to field a force of devastating dire-boar cavalry, as was my secondary plan; not that my family were supportive of my efforts.)

People

A good gaming group is a strange work of alchemy. It needs between four and eight individuals, each combining qualities of motivation, individuality and cooperation. They need to be on some level on the same wavelength, so that what makes sense to one makes sense - with a little explanation - to all, but diverse enough to come up with lots of different ideas. And they need to be available at the same time on at least a semi-regular basis. That last one is a bitch.

As you'll no doubt see, my ideal gaming group is a tabletop one; that's just how I roll. Many people prefer a fest LARP vibe, but I'm not much one for camping.

So, all-time favourite game... That I ran, probably Boomtown, the WFRP game I referenced on day 29. To play in, Enemy Within or Rose Crescent (referenced on days 17 and 12 respectively.) It's not coincidence that James played in or ran all three of those, that Boomtown and Rose Crescent had a 75% player crossover, and that Enemy Within ran with a group of three years shared experience. I'm not saying you should always run with the same group - I'm currently in a game with three friends I've never TTd with before and it's going swimmingly - but it can help.

So, that's been #RPGaDAY on Out of My Mind. I hope that if you've found your way here via the hashtag you'll consider sticking around for my more irregular and unstructured gaming thoughts.

You can also check out, and even follow, my other blogs:

My Life as a Doge - Movie and TV reviews

The Iconomicon - Thoughts and reviews on books and comics

Food of the Blue - My food blog

#RPGaDAY: Day 30 - Rarest game I own

This one is actually quite easy. As I don't own many rareties, then unless Maelstrom is rarer than I think, it's got to be Allansia, the Advanced Fighting Fantasy wilderness adventures and massed battle core book. I picked it up for about £35 to complete my set, and they now run for £70-£110 on Amazon, which was a bit of a surprise.

I did used to own the original Changeling: the Dreaming sampler, which would probably have trumped this, but I think that vanished two moves ago.

That's pretty much all I have on this one. Last, and by definition anything but least, we'll cover 'my all-time favourite game' later today.

Friday, 29 August 2014

#RPGaDAY: Day 29 - It's all fun and games until somebody loses a Fate point

Today's topic is 'most memorable encounter', and I'm drawing a bit of a blank, as I've never really been in many games which played out in discrete encounters. Instead of a single exemplar then, I'm going to run down two memorable incidents and talk a little about what makes them work.
And then this happened...

Here There Be Monsters was the 13th session of my epic WFRP game, 'Boomtown', and took the action to a whole new level. The PCs had previously fought bandits and small packs of beastmen stalking the woods near their village of Heortwald. In this session, they took a trip into the deeper woods to aid their barbarian friends - actually a group of dissident academics who have adopted a barbarian lifestyle, although there is an actual barbarian tribe living in an abandoned mansion nearby - against a massive (by their terms at least) Beastman horde.

In the end, the session involved the PCs rallying the actual barbarians to aid their new neighbours by capturing a beastman for them to fight, then dressing in beastman skins to mask their scent (eww) to rescue captives from sacrifice, and finally leading a massed battle at the neo-barbarian camp. This last was an almost note-perfect mid-game climax, and a huge step up from some of my earlier efforts at large-scale combat.

It worked because the PCs were intimately involved in the combat, battling major opponents at pivotal points in the fight; it worked because they made a major strategic and tactical contribution to the fight, and because they had to work their arses off not to get mashed into a paste by a minotaur or acid-burned by the shaman. There was threat and consequence, and as a result, there was triumph. I think it is still the best battle I've ever run.
Evil, right. Right?

My second example is from a game of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness. We - being a college educated bull-man, a martial arts trained badger-man and a trailer trash bobcat-man - were tracking a group of mutant weasel archers (led by a wolverine and a psychotic bat) who were raiding meat storage facilities. We tracked them down and captured them, and we established that they needed to eat more than their own body weight in meat every day to survive. I'm pretty sure that the scenario's ending options were 'fight to the death' and 'turn them over to the authorities to be returned to the military lab that made them'; possibly, allow them to go to Alaska and try to live free.

Instead, we figured that given their unstoppable digestive systems, we could set ourselves up in a business partnership with them, collecting and disposing of condemned meat. Apart from the bat; because fuck that guy, he was a crazy, giggling killer.

This was a notable incident, because we turned the expectation on its head and were able to find a left-field solution that really worked.

Just two more days left, but I may end up doing both on Monday. The topics are rarest RPG owned and favourite RPG of all time. Not sure what's going to go into that, but I guess we'll find out.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

#RPGaDAY: Day 28 - Scariest game played

It's hard to be truly scared playing an RPG; at least the way I've tended to play them. There's tension, if the game is a good one with plenty of risk and consequence, but fear - even horror movie, ghost train fear - is hard to generate.

LARP does it better, and my friend James explains that better than I can, having run many more LARPs and in particular a load of Cthulhu Live games. I've never quite managed that level of horror in my Geist games, in part I suspect because I no longer have the commitment to run a graveyard slot and it's really hard to do scary in the midday sun.
The game uses locks and keys as major
symbols, but the art is more about the chains.

The game I have played that had the most intention to be scary is Wraith: the Oblivion, one of White Wolf's more conceptual efforts. In it, each player takes on the role both of their own PC - like a classic ghost, but part of a neo-feudal, highly predatory society of dead people and still possessed of a complete set of human desires and drives - and of the darker impulses of another player's Wraith, the Shadow.

The idea was that as the Shadow you would tempt the Wraith to act within your Passions, rather than their own, strengthening your control over them. You did this both by goading and by offering bonus dice in exchange for complicity. Each offer accepted moved the Wraith closer to a period of Catharsis in which the Shadow became briefly ascendant. The fact that Catharsis happened due to a build up of Angst, and that your energy reserves were called Pathos never really helped people to take the game seriously, and the problem was that it would only ever be scary, or indeed compelling in any way, if you took it very seriously. Wraith was not a game that could realistically survive a Monty Python reference, and was so unremittingly serious and grim that it was hard to want it to. It was like the RP equivalent of poetry written on black paper in silver ink.

On the few occasions where I have managed to elicit a fear response in game, it hasn't come from anything outrageously grisly or bleak, but from subverting expectations of the ordinary. It has also come more from implication than overt statement. On learning that the water in a small town was contaminated with Mythos-stuff, my Delta Green investigator definitely would have got less reaction by warning people not to use the toilet than he got by bringing in an ice bucket and a waste paper bin and announcing: "Number one, and number two." (Although I'm not sure if that works for an American character at all).

Tomorrow, we continue the downhill tumble towards completion with Day 29 and Most Memorable Encounter.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

#RPGaDAY: Day 27 - Game you would like to see a new/improved edition of

This is quite the hot topic at the moment, what with Onyx Path rolling out the All-New World of Darkness Second Edition Show (formerly [apt and/or pretentious title] the [iconic antagonist] Chronicle), and D&D (ostensibly) 5th Edition now fresh off the printers and allegedly smelling of fish (literally, and I've certainly had gaming products which had that particular ink-smell problem before).
Angel sarcophagus ON THE MOON!
Sign me up!*

The God-Machine Chronicle release for nWoD is a truly massive overhaul, involving pretty major alterations to every aspect of the game's design. The basic resolution mechanic is the same, but there is a lot more focus on intrinsic abilities, and the 'Condition' mechanic, which basically borrows a page from Fate's playbook and allows a great many powers and effects to pin a description on their target which either gives them penalties or gives other characters advantages against them until they can resolve the Condition in some way.

It also links experience and character progression directly to in-play action rather than raw game time clocked, and decouples morality and sanity. There are a huge number of changes that I really like, and in particular the preview material for Mage and Forsaken suggests that the writers have a much, much stronger handle on what they are actually trying to do with the game than they did with the first editions.

Of course, it's a tabletop game and I mostly (only) play WoD in a LARP setting where about 50-75% of the changes would be a massive headache to implement, but I can hardly criticise the games for that; it would like complaining that hammer is no good for whisking eggs, or at least that my frying pan is too shallow to make sauces in. National-scale LARP societies is not what the game is written for (and given White Wolf's history with the Cam, you can see that they might really not want to go there again.)

This one is newer than mine; I don't know if
there is a yet-newer one.
On top of the announced games, I'd like to see them take a revised run at Geist, which is the game I run and - as we work in a much smaller arena than the big four (Requiem, Lost, Forsaken and Awakening) - it would be something I actually could implement. It's needed as well, as there's still a lot that doesn't entirely tie together in the game as is. I'd like to see Synergy function as a balance mechanic rather than being shoehorned into the linear, unidirectional morality system (they are apparently doing something of the sort with Werewolf's Harmony, so I might just nick that when it's unveiled).

This (or Unisystem cinematic) is
basically my new edition of anything I
don't like the system of.
I hear that there is a new Feng Shui out/due, which would be interesting to take a look at, although my ideal wuxia RPG would be one more removed from the Shadowfist setting. There is also Advanced Fighting Fantasy 2nd Edition, which intrigues me strangely. Onyx Path, again, is revising the Aeon series (Adventure!, Aberrant and Trinity) and that intrigues me, especially the first two (I was never really taken with Trinity, although a closing down sale at the game shop means I have, like, all the material knocking around at home).

But this is all tangential to the point, which is what would I like to see revised, rather than what is being revised. I have to admit, this question is complicated by the fact that I realised recently that I can pretty much run anything I like the setting of, but not the system, in Fate Core with a little prep work; possibly less than learning a new system would take.

I suspect that there are games I would get excited about a new edition for. Hell, I was mad keen when I heard there was a new AFF, wasn't I? But I don't think that there is anything that I think 'man, if only they would revise that', in part because I'm now an experienced enough rules hacker to be confident changing anything that doesn't make sense, and I haven't felt bounded by 'canon' setting since Kung Fu Vampire Hunters at the latest.

Look for the #RPGaDAY hashtag for more on new editions, and check back tomorrow when I'll talk at you about the scariest game I've ever played; or something like it anyway.

* If there are no angels in sarcophagi on the moon in GMC, please tell me; break my heart clean.**

** I would totally accept Mars as an alternative.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

#RPGaDAY: Day 26 - Coolest character sheet

What is the measure of a man? Or woman? Or dwarf, or for that matter cyborg killer afflicted with a deep and unremitting melancholy fugue as a side effect of his intra-cranial armour plating? In an RPG, that measure is the character sheet.

I have no particular dog in today's fight, so I've just gone trawling through a Google image search for some prime examples. Most of the examples below are stock sheets; where I can see that they are otherwise, I've credited the creators as best I can.

 
D&D: Lowering the common denominator since 1974
We begin with the daddy of them all: Dungeons & Dragons. Just look at that thing; it's huge and cluttered and... I think the best thing I can say for it is that it's comprehensive. I guess that the tabular layout is clear, but it's not visually appealing (although in all honesty the teenage me would have been excited by the multiplicity of apparent options, however irrelevant). I guess it does at least not have a space in which the artistically inept can self-consciously not draw a portrait of their PC and feel kind of like a failure each time they look at the blank space where they know they could have drawn a portrait if they were any good. I disapprove of RPGs making their players feel even more wanting than most of them already do. It's not like the cool, confident kids tend to find their way into roleplaying, especially not as teenagers.

Overall, I include it here as an example of what is not (to me) a cool character sheet.

If anyone knows what this is actually for, drop a note in the
comments.
By comparison, here's another sheet purporting to be for D&D; I guess for 5th edition, although the necessarily chaotic and complex nature of my high-dimensional data mining exercise (search terms: character + sheet) means that it may be mislabeled and not a D&D sheet at all. The presence of a 'Tec' attribute and the 'Augments' section argues for the latter somewhat.

I much prefer the layout on this one. The curves are visually appealing, and the information is clustered according to use, and the whole thing is on a single side, including a reference list of favoured combos. The combination of form and function makes this a strong contender.

Some folks will always go the extra mile.
One of the hallmarks of a good character sheet is how easy it is for the financially and tech impoverished to replicate using a piece of paper and a pencil, and in fairness the D&D sheet above would be easy to copy, given its tabular layout.

The hand drawn sheet on the left (created for Dungeon Crawl Classics by The Earthlight Academy) is proof, if it were needed, that not everyone considers such simplicity to be a virtue. Despite the visual elegance, however, the layout of this sheet remains clear and concise. D&D could learn a bit about structuring a D20 character sheet here. On the down side, being of an obviously artistic bent, the maker has left that great big character portrait space in the centre to tease those of a more literary or mathematical persuasion.

This one also represents the PC as
the Vitruvian man, so Da Vinci props.
Speaking of simplicity, here's a couple of fair examples. On the left, Tunnels and Trolls, and on the right, no less than two character sheets for In Nomine; one for an angel and one for a demon.

Each has a straightforward design; tabular, but broken up by images so that they don't look like an unalloyed accounting spreadsheet. They contain all the information needed for a character, and don't take up pages and pages of paper.

On to the Fate system now, and the Fate Core character sheet.

Again, it's a beautifully simple and elegant layout, and no taunting portrait space. It's got pretty much everything it needs, although if I'm honest I find it a bit stark. Aesthetically, it works for me as a sheet for a modern or futuristic game, but I'd find it odd looking at that style and layout for a fantasy or historical game.

It is dead easy to copy into your own variation if you so desired, but in and of itself is all function and no form.

This sheet for Spirit of the Century is almost the opposite; very visual, but not necessarily convenient in play. I do like the fact that you could absolutely draw a portrait in the centre circle, but because it's the hub of the sheet rather than an obvious picture frame, there's no pressure to do so.

Moving on quite quickly, I like the cog design of the Tephra sheet on the right, and it looks pretty usable.

On the left, a D20 Star Wars sheet. Much prettier than the D&D sheet, but I have a feeling that this one is incomplete, to the level of there probably being at least one more sheet.

And the final instance, and winner of the coolest character sheet award is this little beauty:

Why? Well, it's about Vampire Pirates; what's cooler than that?

Check back tomorrow for the game I would like to see an improved or expanded version of, and in the meantime check out the hashtag, #RPGaDAY, for more cool character sheets.

#RPGaDAY: Day 25 - Favourite RPG that no one else wants to play

I really don't think I have an answer for this. I've never yet been faced with the situation that I couldn't put together a group for a game due to lack of system, or even concept, enthusiasm.

Time is another matter, and is - together with geographical distances - what has stymied me time and again, but it's not about people not wanting to play. Unless all of my so-called friends are liars, just making excuses to avoid getting involve in games with me, but I'm pretty sure that isn't it.

As I've mentioned before then, I'd love to play some more Warhammer, either my Dirty Dozen-styled Only War campaign, or Pies Across the Ocean, which would be like the Hobbit, but with more scurvy. I also want to run some version of The Crown of Kings for new AFF, and I'd like to play some Fiasco! sometime.

Sadly, not much to add on this one. Next is... man, 'coolest character sheet'. That's going to take some thought.

#RPGaDAY: Day 24 - Most complicated RPG owned

The game which had a skill called 'Do', which
seemed a little broad.
I don't own many mechanically complex games. Easily the worst offender is Dark Heresy, which as I've noted before took five or six rolls to resolve a single combat hit from the psyker's Force staff. If I had 'Lost, in Space' to do over, I'd just have said "Okay; add Psi-Rating to Strength Bonus and Armour Pirecing; have fun with that."

However, I've already talked a lot about Warhammer in various forms, so instead I'm going to look at a game whose complications were metaphysical rather than mechanical (although it's a White Wolf old World of Darkness game, so it has its share of rules complications, from endless lists of secondary skills to a four stage resolution for each and every basic combat roll): Mage: The Ascension.

The central premise and conceit of Mage: the Ascension is that magic is a point of view. All reality is fluid, determined by the consensus beliefs of the mass of humanity. Most humans are unconscious participants in the system, Sleepers; the Awakened are the Mages whose enlightened condition allows them to impose their will on reality and say: "No, you work like this."

Magical ability was determined by Spheres - nine branches of magic, which determined what you could do - and Arete - degree of enlightenment, which determined how well you could do it. Within the dominion of your Spheres, you could basically do anything. There were some sample effects, but basically there was no spell list, no power set; if you could conceive it in terms of your Spheres, and make the Arete roll (the tricky part, as casting pools tended to be the lowest dice pools in the game), you could make it happen. The fundamental simplicity of this system was the source of its complication, because in the absence of a spell list, every casting was up for debate: Can you do this, or are you just blagging it? Nuclear blasts are the preserve of the Forces Sphere, but what if I use the Matter Sphere to create a critical mass of fissile plutonium? (Official ruling was that without Forces, the material would not be fissile, as the inherent instability of plutonium was a function of the consensus reality that you were bypassing to make the plutonium out of thin air in the first place, IIRC.)

The debate was further complicated by Paradox. When a mage tried to bend reality too far, reality could push back through a little-understood force called Paradox. Spells that worked cleverly around consensus reality were coincidental, while those that punched the consensus in the nose and called it chicken were vulgar; vulgar spells generated more Paradox, which built up inside a mage until it was either bled off, exploded, or sent a manifestation around to take you out back and give you the business, so every casting involved a measure of debate over whether something 'could have' happened.

Of course, that was all hunky-dory compared to the Technocracy issue. The Technocracy were the morally ambiguous bad guys... Sort of. They were mages who, rather than harking back to a mythical golden age of wonder, sought to create a perfect world of ordered reality... through SCIENCE! They were so succesful a sympathetic antagonist that later material on them did everything short of slapping swastikas on all their iconography to make them more obviously baddies, before giving up and making them a playable option.

The thing of it was that the Technocracy truly believed in 'enlightened Science'. They didn't see themselves as wizards monkeying with technology; they were scientists and inventors and surgeons and explorers who used Sufficiently Advanced Science (TM) to shape the future scientific paradigm of the consensus reality. And the metaphysic being what it was, they were right. Wrap your head around that, if you please; at least until the 3rd edition showed up and was all: "Nah; they're wizards monkeying with science, but now none of that consensus shit applies and the world is as it is." 3rd ed was weird in its efforts not to be weird.

Next up, in a few minutes really, my favourite RPG that no-one else wants to play. I have literally no clue what to talk about for that.

Check out the hashtag for more overly complicated RPGs.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

#RPGaDAY: Day 23 - Coolest looking RPG product/book

There are a number of interpretations of 'coolest', but I cover most of the bases in today's video entry... in a narrow strip in the centre of the picture.

It's a learning curve.



This is the other book I was talking about, and a sample image, which I take to be an homonculus bottle of some kind. I need to make more use of shit like this in games that I run.

I think that this is the same Secret of Art and Science/Nature that I have/had. It's a facsmilie reprint of an actual 17th Century digest of the 'entire' canon of natural philosophy, which is what makes it way cooler than the modern collection in the Medieval Miscellany. A local bookstore got hold of a big stack of copies almost at random and a bunch of us bought them. It's full of references to and extracts from people like Cornelius Agrippa, and has a chapter on 'the secrets of sciences, as natural magick...'

Oh. Yeah.

Friday, 22 August 2014

#RPGaDAY: Day 22 - In which I change horses mid-stream

Okay, so this - best secondhand RPG purchase - is a bit of a toughy, as I don't buy many games secondhand. Back in the day I used to get them new on my way home from work (I was paid in cash on the far side of the games shop from the bus station; it was a fit up!), and when I've not had the money to do that I've never possessed enough of a collecting bug, not enough prospect of playing random purchases, to go for things secondhand. As a result, pretty much all I have are books I've talked about before, specifically Maelstrom and Allansia, the Advanced Fighting Fantasy wilderness and mass combat guide.

I think that's a remora, which always
confused me because a remora is also
a small fish that attaches to larger fish.
So, let's talk a little about Allansia, since I've covered Maelstrom quite a bit.

Advanced Fighting Fantasy was Steve Jackson (the GW one, not the Steve Jackson Games one) and Ian Livingstone's first shot at an original RPG, based in the world shared by most, but not all, of the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. I'm pretty sure that by this point their names were just on the 'present' banner and they weren't writing all that much, but...

Holy shit.

So, looking up who wrote the books (Marc Gascoigne and Pete Tamlyn) I have discovered that there was a new edition (published by Cublicle 7) a few years back, which included a campaign book called The Crown of Kings, for running the Sorcery! campaign in new AFF. Oh, man, if I had money I would be spending it right the fuck now!

Okay, fuck second hand purchases; we're talking about Sorcery!

Sorcery! was the first attempt to do something really different with a Fighting Fantasy book, and featured an epic quest stretched across four volumes. Your hero, 'the Analander', was an agent sent from the Kingdom of Analand into the chaos of Khakabad, through The Shamutanti Hills and Khare - Citiport of Traps, over the Baklands in pursuit of The Seven Serpents, and finally through the fortress of Mampang to confront the Archmage and recover The Crown of Kings.

It also had an awesome spellcasting system, which required the player to memorise a book of 48 spells, each with a three letter name and a crucial ingredient. In combat, you would have the option of casting one of three spells, one of which was usually a dud, one hopelessly inappropriate and one useful. If you picked the right one, actually had the right ingredient in your backpack, and paid the Stamina cost, you got to feel like a fricking Wizard for a few minutes, until the next time you tried to cast YOB without a giant's tooth in sight.

And it was tough. Dear lord, it was difficult. In Khare you had to collect parts of the password for the gate by completing what certainly seemed like fucking Mensa-level IQ tests. I don't think I ever completed either Khare or Crown of Kings, and not for want of trying.

Sorcery! was an eye opener for me; the first thing that showed me that fantasy games could be more than just a single book. The idea of character continuity was a revelation, and was I think what really hooked me into the idea of roleplaying. It's certainly what attracted me to Dungeoneer when it came out.

So, yeah... Wow, the idea of running The Crown of Kings for a group is pretty tempting. The wild beasts and vicious tribes of the Shamutanti Hills, the cutthroats of Khare, the Seven Serpents and the Archmage. I know it's probably just the nostalgic haze talking, but I am practically salivating at the thought. It's such a wonderfully rich setting and I have such fond memories of the books. Of course, ideally I wouldn't be killing off all of my PCs at the Baklands Gate of Khare, so it wouldn't be just the way I remember it.

£19.99 for the core book from the publisher, and I can get the campaign for £11.99 on Amazon...

No! Bad blogger! No biscuit.

Apparently, I could shift my old AFF books for about £500, and the new ones are only £100 or so all told, but... I guess I don't roll that way. One day, I may sell Dungeoneer to buy something awesome for my daughter, but not for me.

Still, I feel better about paying £30 for Allansia now.

Come back tomorrow - or possibly after the weekend, which may be Tuesday, because bank holiday - when I will still be wrestling with my desire to spend money I can't afford on books I will likely never use, and also talking about my coolest looking RPG product/book.

Man, that Crown of Kings campaign looks pretty cool to me right now.