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Ian O'Rourke
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Tyranny of Dragons S1
Keywords: Actual Play; Role-Playing Games; Dungeons and Dragons; Tyranny of Dragons.

We started Tyranny of Dragons last Sunday playing through what I assume is the first ‘adventure’, though I don’t know if this is true. It was great fun, but also quite combat encounter intense with our characters rolling into one after the other. One of the characters died, but it wasn’t under the vagaries of the dice. We’ll have more on that later.

I’m conscious many people are playing through Tyranny of Dragons at the same time so anything else involves serious spoilers.

Warning: Serious spoilers beyond this point.

The characters arrive at Greenest to find it under attack by unknown forces with the backup of a Blue Dragon! This raises the adventure’s first potential stumbling point: why would any sane set of first level characters rush into a town being sieged by a Blue Dragon? Unless the characters have very strong reasons to rescue or obtain something from the town there is going to be a lot of ‘for the sake of the adventure decisions going on’. Which is fine by me, as that sort of player-driven authorial and meta-decision isn’t a problem, but you’d prefer it to be for other reasons and many a GM would hate it. Our group had a character looking to eventually kill a red dragon due to his people being brought low by it and a second in the full, naive heroism of youth so that got us moving forward.

There is a risk some groups fall at this hurdle or have a major disconnect.

The adventure after this point is a series of encounters one after the other without a chance for a short rest due to the new compromise rule that has per encounter powers shunted into being ‘short rest’ powers that involves having to rest for an hour. This makes the six or seven (I’ve forgotten how many) encounters a drain on resources. We did really well though. The combats were quick. We had characters go down but I don’t believe anyone was in danger of dying due to quick stabilisation. We seemed to cut the enemies down quite fast even to the point some support abilities, such as the Bards inspiration dice, got assigned and then not used (since you add the D6 after knowing what you rolled). We probably could have avoided some of the encounters through stealth or showing less moral character.

It had the potential to be ridiculously hard and dangerous as many a group had hinted, but we must have rolled very well, the GM’s strategy wasn't as aggressive as it could be or something about our group composition (five players: fighter, rogue, bard and cleric x2), which covers many of the bases and doubles up on the healing, helped us out.

I’ll say at this point the new rules on how ‘per encounter’ powers work could get quite frustrating. I see it as a compromise to retain them while pandering to those with a simulative bent. We didn’t have a character reliant on short rests, like a Warlock or Monk, but we will once the Fighter chooses Battlemaster, which was probably good. It strikes me characters who regain powers after a short rest refresh their powers on that basis for a reason (they have less of them and / or they aren’t as powerful as those demanding a full rest) so having the refresh taken away would be annoying. It also feels false to me, as the argument is you’re under time pressure so you can’t have a short rest? But this is false logic, the powers are balanced to a short rest so why take them away? The feeling of tension due to time pressure should be enabled in other ways, primarily the attrition of daily / long rest powers, not by limiting encounter / short rest powers. After all, the more powerful daily / long rest powers aren’t impacted by this ‘time pressure’. It’s not a major thing, but it is one of the principles of the game I find a bit incongruous and mildly annoying.

Two great rules though are: advantage and bounded accuracy.

The advantage and disadvantage rule is just pure genius and you almost imagine the grins on the designer’s faces when they fully realised what they had and the scope of the rule. It’s a simple concept that gets rid of almost every contextual modifier to a dice roll. You just have advantage or disadvantage which seems to result in a +5 to +1 (or the negative in reverse) depending on what you need to roll. It is very clever. Love it.

Bounded reality is also a core rule of the game and makes it an absolute joy across a number of areas. Basically, the game is constructed to keep attack and defence bonuses within a certain ‘bounded accuracy’, this removes the ridiculous to hit bonuses and high defence bonuses of previous editions and things like ‘auto hit’ or leaving enemies behind who could ‘never hit’. This rarely, if ever happens. It’s quite possible for a character in plate with a shield to have the defences of a very dangerous monster. In reverse those low level monsters may die quickly, but if they swarm you they can still hit you! As an example, we could hit the Blue Dragon in this adventure despite being first level because it’s defences fall within bounded accuracy. The other interesting wrinkle is it makes the pursuit of ridiculously high stats less…necessary. This is great because it’s just very relaxing. Having a 14 that gives you a +2 and be happy with it is great. It also makes shields, with their +2 defence, awesome and that’s a personal awesome.

So, the important thing is I died!

It was a bit of a strange one as it didn’t come about due to the randomness of the dice. The second to last scene of the session featured the forces of Greenest and the players facing the Blue Dragon on the top of the Keep. I chose to cast a spell that gives me a God-like voice and challenged and insulted the creature. After all, a dragon almost destroyed his people and here is one doing it again to a town.

I must admit, I probably miss-read the scene. I may have also not done enough to articulate intent and my understanding of the framing and the stakes. The dragon seemed to be pitched as a special effect, after all, if it really wanted to it could kill anyone on top of that Keep as soon as it wanted to (but it obviously wasn’t going to work that way so a different set of rules were in play? Wasn’t it?). So, while there was no explicit framing the implicit framing fooled me into thinking I could get away with a bit of cool challenging. I also didn’t realise we’d entered combat rounds. I thought we were in cool, role-playing mode and in the worst case I’d narratively be taking out of the fight after heroically trying to dive out of the way. Apparently not, it attacked me directly on its first round and blasted me directly with its lightning breath which, I believe, was death as soon as the decision was made (as even I succeeded on the saving throw half damage was very large).

So, alas Waylan Stormlord, future hope of the clans and tribes of the Sunset Mountains and seeker of the Red Dragon ‘Red Eye’ was electrocuted to a husk. This isn’t a problem, it does mean I now have to decide on whether I create a new character or have Waylan return in some way by ‘The Gods’ due to some divine purpose (which is sort of hinted at and due to the way he died isn’t entirely stupid). Difficult choice. I’m not against bringing the character back but him coming back straight away I can’t get my head around. I can’t see how it will be anything but cheesy and ‘oh you are back, let us move on’ with everyone feeling uncomfortable. Also, it’s early days so it doesn’t’ feel like that sort of divine intervention would feel narratively right at this point.

The GM would like the character to return as would I, so I decided to pitch a delayed return and we are going with that. Waylan is going to stay ‘dead’ so we can (1) build up to the character returning and (2) have it be an adventure to return him. This avoids the ‘cheese’ and integrates it into the campaign. I’m going to play a different character in the interim who will be part of larger surrounding fabric that is part of Waylan’s set-up. This character can then act as a bridging mechanism between the dead Waylan and the forces he was meant to become embroiled with. I’m thinking at this point he died but his journey has been waylaid by nefarious forces affording the opportunity of a rescue.

We shall see, whichever way it goes there is interesting options. I am enjoying the game, though I have to admit it is the sort of game that I find difficult to shine in (minimal scene framing, aggressive editing to the combat map, little use of NPC’s to drive the drama) as it demands a sort of disembodied ‘act out your character now’ sort of role-playing rather than a ‘add some contextual, conflict driven writing to this scene’ sort of role-playing. That’s a preference not a qualitative thing. This is fine, different approaches for different folks, and it is very early days, but the risk is I’ll be slightly more subdued moving forward as the ‘act out your character now’ thing just never feels right. I also maybe need to just take a bit more into my own hands once I get the cadence of the game (it’s very early days!).

Onward…no idea what happens next which, I must admit, I wasn’t entirely convinced was the case in this session (I knew a Blue Dragon featured, thanks to Twitter, I have a sneaky feeling spoilers had alerted the odd player to so some other things as well).

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 15/09/2014 Bookmark and Share
19 Hours. Level 20. The Grindiose Endgame Begins
Keywords: Video Games; PS4; Destiny.

I have reached level 20, the sort of level cap in the game. It’s best not described as a level cap though, it’s more the point at which levelling changes. It’s a transitioning level, signifying the end of the ‘game’ and the beginning of the ‘endgame’. It’s not the end of all the content though. I still have to do the last mission on Mars and a few strikes.

Looking into it a bit, the endgame is a typical gear and reputation grind. The levels your character has post-20 seem to some sort of reflection of how much +light you have on your gear, so unless I’m missing something the post-20 levels are essentially a gear rating? Anyway, you seem to get this gear from strikes set to their higher difficulty level (as I’ve had some from the two I’ve done) and through buying gear which can only be accessed with the right reputation level.

As previously guessed at this is going to mean patrols and the daily strike list which fills fire teams and assigns them to strikes. All the time. Repeat endlessly until I have enough +light gear to denote me as 26 level and then I can raid. The one raid, when it becomes available. If I continue with this I’d like to find time to unlock the powers in the Defender subclass, which I’d have to do through patrols as I am weaker while I do it. At least you can swap subclasses on a whim. Have to admit, not really sure how that's going to fit in.

I can see Destiny being one of those games were people really get into the lore. I hate that word when applied to role-playing games be it computer games or traditional role-playing games. Why? Because it always seems to come with a load of baggage involving lots of things you don’t know and that someone, and there is always someone, seems glad to bore you with or gleefully tell you things you don’t know as if it is the most awesome thing in the universe. Destiny, and games like it, have a special ‘lore sin’, they obfuscate things in the game but then build a log of some sort telling you about all this glorious lore they’ve written.

What is the point unless they show it as part of a dynamic, exciting and epic narrative?

Destiny doesn’t, it keeps it all in the log. What is the point of that? Okay, Mass Effect did the whole log thing as well, but at least it did it in a way that was like an extra appendices you could read for more detail (and I never did and was enthralled by the evocative nature of the drama and backdrop). Everything was in the story, this just fed the lore geeks who like to absorb these things. The Destiny approach results in a hollow, unintelligible ‘plot’, though really it’s just exclamations and links between missions, and then a log full of lore. Ridiculous. Poor old Dinklage must have really felt like a right idiot saying most of the lines. Still, it may have been easy money.

So, I’ll be taking a break away from the game (by which point 'everyone' will probably be raiding) for a bit as other things will be impacting on my time. But I am there at the gloriously, grindiose endgame.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 13/09/2014 Bookmark and Share
17 Hours. 18 Levels. Areas to Improve
Keywords: Video Games; PS4; Destiny.

I am now less than 2 levels away from the (not so) max level. I am on the final planet: mars. I will have done all the story missions soon and then it’s a matter of going back and hitting the strikes I’ve missed. At that point I’ll have consumed all the content.

I’ve discovered patrols and completing bounties are an excellent way to level. This is made even stranger by the fact this seems to hold up even when doing a patrol area ten levels below your ability. The enemies are easier to kill, but you zoom up the levels. It seems way faster than actually doing the missions. Very strange. Still, it’s got me 2-3 levels and it’s a good way to play if you have smaller moments to fit some of the game in.

Is it just me or does the story make no sense? It’s almost incomprehensible. Dinklage waffles on about some space fantasy bollocks that offers the most tenuous of links to go from one mission to another but it doesn’t seem to be adding to an overall narrative or enhancing the drama. This is unfortunate. While I realise it would have been difficult to make it the new Mass Effect, the effort they have put in is risible. It’s not even a tenth of the way as good. Even with your ‘silent hero’ they could have put some great NPC’s in, better dialogue and some narrative to give it an epic feel. The story is so basic I’m almost not sure why they bothered? They may as well have just gave you a mission list.

I’ve completed three strikes now one on Earth, the Moon and Venus. I’ve come to the conclusion they really are going to have to do something with the strikes. They all involve very similar elements. Fight your way through trash. Hit a point that delays you but involves fighting off waves of enemies. Fight a boss that has some sort of restriction on hitting him (a sensitive spot or a rotating shield) while occasionally being hit with waves of adds. That is it. Possibly it gets different later on but I have a feeling it probably doesn’t. It shows a distinct lack of imagination.

I’m also not entirely sure what your character level is doing? It obviously does something, as things definitely get easier, your various powers seem to unlock independently and the subclass you get at 15 arrives without any of its powers unlocked. Equipment also levels and unlocks better capability. I suspect the following will be true: I’ll hit level 20 but I’ll still not have all my Striker subclass powers unlocked so I can only assume they keep unlocking? I’ll still have the entirety of the Defender subclass’s powers to unlock, which I suspect will take a while. You can also level past 20 through gear and some wacky thing called motes of light. So basically, to say 20 is the level cap is true while being slightly odd and players face a complex post 20 levelling situation. This is not helped by the fact all content will have been experienced at this point. So there is a lot of post-20 work (filling out your second subclass could take almost as long as the first!) to do, but no new experiences to help you along.

Big mistake.

The raids are a complete mystery, but they are really going to have to shake things up. Technically, there are no raids at the moment as they’re coming later this month. The rumour is you need to be 26th level to do them (so grinding through the complex post-20 levelling situation). If true, this means you have an equipment and mote grind to accrue 6 levels and a barren field of new content to do it in (it’s an exercise in repeated strikes). If a raid turns out to be exactly the same structure just with three more people it will be a serious weakness in the game. The raids are the tent pole of the endgame. If they are challenging only in the sense of the amount of enemies and the number of hit points it shows a level of uninspiring game design on an epic scale.

All this sounds really negative? Which is true, but it’s more that it’s disappointing. It doesn’t really tread much ground into the exciting realm of the possible, just the banal world of the traditional done in an average way and complex way. The weird thing is this doesn’t seem to matter at this point, the mechanics and flow of play of the game as a shooter continues to drag you back in to play the game. The rhythm of it is almost hypnotic and therapeutic. As usual, the test is going to come when level 20 is reached and there is less than two to go (the ability to grind for the post-20 gear has already opened up for me).

For all of Bungie’s wish to avoid the MMO tag, they’ve pretty much designed a very average one, albeit with killer FPS mechanics. I’m enjoying the game and even if the post-20 game grinds me down and I exit stage left the price I paid (nothing) for the game means it’s worked really well as a boxed, non-MMO shooter.

Still, it’s a game that is supposed to have a long life, audience allowing, so we’ll see how it morphs and changes because some of it needs to.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 12/09/2014 Bookmark and Share
648 Minutes. Some Patrols and a Strike Two
Keywords: Video Games; PS4; Destiny.

648 minutes in (300 minutes on from last time) and I’m thirteenth level. I’ve experienced the concept of the ‘Patrol’ (138 minutes), progressed the story a bit (380 minutes in total) and I’ve done the second Strike (115 minutes in total), but not succeeded at it, and done the first strike again.

No more PvP.

The structure of each planet is similar. A number of missions which should be done in order as they are connected by a story, a patrol mission and a strike which I suspect may or may not cap the story on the planet. Patrols..they’re basically farming. You get experience and reputation. There also seems to be some stuff to pick up, though I’m not sure there is a whole crafting thing going on. This isn't a bad thing. The patrol area is full of enemies that re-spawn as well as mission beacons. These missions are the sort of basic MMO quests you see across the board: kill this many, scan this, stand at a point and observe that, collect these drops, etc. You do these repeatedly. I did spend a bit of time in the Patrol area of Venus. Quite enjoyed it. It got me some way through level 10 and into 11 as well as 50% of the way through 13. It’s handy for if you pop in for a short period knowing you’re going to quit soon.

It’s not something you’d want to constitute your entire Destiny experience. It’s obviously the solution to the Destiny ‘world’ not being one you can wonder across from coast to coast killing things on beaches, across plains, in woods and high up the mountains.

The second strike? Oh boy. It’s shorter than the first one, in that it doesn’t seem to take as long to progress to the boss. It was very hard when we got there and that was with characters levelled to circa 11, 14 and 16. Two of them being well above the entry requirement. The boss fight is a bit alarming.

It’s alarming because it’s very fluid and there is only three characters present. Possibly too fluid for my inefficient fatal thumbs to deal with.

At the end of the strike you have to kill the eponymous, and very large, Phogoth the Summoner in the dread Summoning Pits on the moon. The fluidity seems to be a product of the small player count in the strike and the complete lack of ability variation that allows for numerous roles. So, an MMO would normally construct it’s ‘dungeons’ and ‘raids’ around a party of 4-5 with a varied ability spread to facilitate tanking, DPS, healing, support, AOE, kiting and whatever else. In short, there is quite a lot of abilities to construct the challenge around. This is not the case in Destiny as far as I can tell. This means the first two strikes have been similar. This second strike is an exercise in being inundated with periodic waves of enemies during which, or in the brief breaks, you’re supposed to wear down the bosses health with constant shooting.

Funnily enough, this was a similar procedure within the first strike. Except this one is much harder as the number, variety and power of the adds thrown at you is significant to the point it’s very hard to battle them all down never mind the constant firing of Phogoth’s epic eye blast. I’m sure it’s beatable and there is some approach we are missing, though the ‘guides’ are very vague, suggesting the fluidity and the ability to deal with it is all that is present. It’ll be a bit of a sad affair if this is the solution to all strikes, just with more and difficult adds and a boss with more hit points and a sensitive spot to hit him at. Will it just more of the same in the raids?

Even without the varied abilities available to typical, small traditional MMO parties I can think of a few things that can be done to liven up strikes and raids – splitting the team and giving them different objectives? Take the fight away from just hitting the boss by ensuring other tasks have to be competed at the same time which doesn’t involve add waves. Use the reactive nature of the game to inject tasks of agility and the jump powers (or the super abilities) to integrate interesting, narrative driven challenges as the fight unfolds.

I guess all this comes down to using the narrative and the environment to inject the awesome.

In terms of the story, I am progressing through Venus and have one last mission to do. I like Venus, it's more lush and has better colours. It also has better aliens as I'm liking the Vex, who are basically like the Geth in Mass Effect. Mechanical life forms. I get a strange thrill out of shooting up their mechanical bodies for some reason.

Finally, one of the family members I play with hit level 20 while groups of us were playing today. Strangely, he's not done a lot of the story. He's been doing PvP and helping other people level as he's always been quite far ahead (so he's done some missions a lot but not consistently done them all).

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 10/09/2014 Bookmark and Share
320 Minutes. 10 Levels. One Strike
Keywords: Video Games; PS4; Destiny.

So, far Destiny has consisted of 320 minutes of play, nine levels and one strike (dungeon). It’s been played almost exclusively in a fire team. It’s all been spent doing story (259 minutes) and strikes (34 minutes) and a smidgeon of PvP (15 minutes). Some of those hours being between 00:00 – 0400 on the morning of the launch, it being only the second midnight launch I’ve been to, the first in eons and I can’t even remember what the first one was. It’s also worth noting I’m halfway to max level (and some people have reached it I am told), though ‘max level’ might be slightly different in Destiny due to levelling equipment.

So, Destiny, how does it stack up?

It plays like a combination of Halo and Mass Effect. This isn’t a bad thing. It obviously has less of an engaging, sweeping and character-study orientated story than Mass Effect, but there is one. At the moment I can’t say I fully understand it. It did seem to gain a bit more personality once I hit the first mission on Venus. There is some Bungie staples in there, in that you’re the eponymous, mask (well, helmet) wearing hero most of the time (in game, though your mask comes off in the social hub), complete with a ‘digital’ companion. Though, it has to be said, your ‘Ghost’ is way less intriguing than Cortana despite being voiced by Peter Dinklage.

As a shooter? It’s brilliant. It manages to play fluidly. It looks great. It is just the right side of frustrating that even my lack of fatal thumbs can play without throwing the controller at the monitor. It’s not a twitch-based shooter, though it is run and gun. It has a pace. It’s not frenetic all the time, demanding preternatural reflexes and other skills I don’t have. You can control your environment to a degree. The weapons look great, adopting a realistic art style that worked so well in Mass Effect. As far as I’m concerned it is an amazingly well designed game in this area, but it’s probably true to say it doesn’t do anything astoundingly new.

As a role-playing game? It’s a strange beast. It’s a role-playing game in the narrow sense you can level things up, that’s about the long and the short of it. You don’t have a character, albeit they call it that, in truth it’s just an avatar that happens to have a race (though there is no reason why) and a class. You can’t even name the ‘character’ as all your avatars are named the same as your Playstation Network account. As you can imagine, this leads to some strange names. I have no idea how levelling works at the moment. Currently, it’s doesn’t involve much choice as what’s gaining experience seems to be being selected for me based on use or a pre-destined order, though a few seem mutually exclusive such as only being able to have one type of grenade active. You can also level up equipment, which is great, but in the first ten levels it’s safe to say you don’t really have long enough to fully appreciated that in a lot of cases. I do have an auto rifle currently that is fully levelled up and I am really liking it (reduced recoil being a big thing for me). I can see the equipment levelling being great if higher end equipment has less churn and longer trees.

As Massively Multiplayer Online game? Even stranger. It is massively multiplayer. It is permanently online. It meets the definition, what it doesn’t meet is the baggage and expectations of the name. This is probably why they’ve been avoiding it. There isn’t a persistent world you can traverse, such as being able to ride or fly across a continent from coast to coast. This was expected. In truth there is just locations in which missions are set. Notable multiple missions. It’s hub (the city, which is like a MMO city) and spoke (the mission location) with your ship acting as the teleporting mechanism between these elements. I believe the various locations are instanced to distribute the player-base, so not to you, but to player load - I am guessing here (or the game is empty). The various mission locations aren’t instanced, so other players are doing their thing and spontaneous cooperation is a cool part of the game. You do get maps of say, the moon, but again it is more a representation to facilitate mission selection. In truth, Destiny has less of a ‘world’ in the geographical sense than Borderlands.

Is this a bad thing? Not really. The size of it might be though and how this relates to how the game is expanded. I suspect expansions that add more missions to familiar locations will have to be cheaper than expansions that add new planets or whole new areas to existing planets. Earth has a lot of expansion space, for example, unless the initial game opens up an area beyond New Russia (hell, even New Russia could be expanded) later in the game.

In the first ten levels variety of play hasn’t been particularly diverse. This doesn’t seem to be a big problem as whatever the game is offering still has that essential ‘just a bit more’ feel to it. So, it’s hard to categorise it as a complaint. Since the game is supposed to last ten years though as it is expanded this will probably need resolving. Once you reach the max level and the ‘extra widgets’ are less forthcoming (the whole equipment levelling thing aside) variety of play, rather than character widgets, will become more important. This will be particularly true of the strikes and raids. At the moment there wasn’t really that much to differentiate the strike from playing the rest of the game other than they’d just to call it one and it mandated a fire team. It didn’t feel special, with its own unique location, atmosphere and narrative (like a Warcraft dungeon).

PvP? Nothing much to say. I’m sure it’s great but I won’t be doing much of it.

There is already an expansion pass that can be purchased for £34.99, albeit the expansions are not released. I am assuming at this point this is a reduced price. The nature and rate of expansions is going to be the tricky part of Destiny. How many? How much? How big? I am sure there will be a variety of them, possibly at different prices, some might even be free. I suspect they are going to have to trickle in a type of free content. If it starts feeling too expensive, it’s going to be a problem. You have to factor in the console audience, who are just used to anaemic DLC, and generally dislike it. As an example, the typical £15 DLC doesn’t often offer a vast amount of extra hours of play? This can’t be the case with Destiny, If they’re going to keep people playing it for the 10-year projected life of the console. Okay, some might say you have to compare it to a possible £8 - £12 a month, but I don’t believe so. Subscription-based MMOs are on the way out, it doesn’t have a lot of the persistency you expect in such a game (such as the world offering something to ‘play’ in) and you can always cast your eye over to the model adopted by, say, Guild Wars 2.

Renewing, extending and keeping the game fresh within an acceptable economic model is going to be challenging.

Overall, really enjoying the game. It doesn’t do anything special, but what it does do it does superlatively well. You want to keep progressing. Expand your character. Experiment with new weapons. See new places. The variety in missions and end game (based on the experience so far) will be a long-term issues for the expansion, as will the economics of it.

As a boxed game to play to whatever virtual conclusion it offers: a winner. The rest will be a case of seeing how it plays out!

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 09/09/2014 Bookmark and Share
A Kick in the Gaming Arse
Keywords: Role-Playing Games; Video Games.

I’m giving myself a kick in the gaming arse. I’m really bad at utilising my spare time effectively and by effectively I don’t mean writing a novel or anything amazing, just not letting it drift away having done very little! It’s one of the main reasons I did the MBA, as it provided me with an all-consuming passion that lasted 3.5 years. It certainly solved the free time issue. Since the MBA ended at the close of 2011 it’s been a bit hit and miss again.

That’s 2.5 years since I finished the MBA and the problem of what to do with my free time has largely been avoided through being on two, long-term, very intense projects that often involved working ridiculous hours. I mean ridiculous, like 10 hours being normal and 14 being the extended day. That leaves zero time during the week and you’re knackered on the weekend.

This hasn’t really been the case since June, yet the time still wastes away. I need to sort it out now by giving myself a gaming kick in the arse.

Console games. It’s entered a bit of a death spiral, largely because there isn’t any really interesting and engaging games out, like Mass Effect, Tomb Raider, Uncharted, etc. I had Diablo III, Borderlands 2 and Elder Scrolls V on the shelf, though only Diablo III has survived some trading in. They’re solid games, but lack that essential ‘magical draw’. Diablo III and Borderlands 2 are sort of dip in games and Elder Scrolls is just one of those ‘way too much stuff’ console role-playing games.

In search of something big, bold, and full of cinematic awesome, action and great visuals I’m going to give Destiny a serious go on the PS4. It’s arriving on Tuesday, we have a ‘guild’ set-up with some family and friends and we’ll see how it pans out. It looks like Halo and Mass Effect mated and had some sort of weird, shooter, MMO-related baby so I’m looking forward to it. It’s got a story to investigate and all the MMO-like side of things as well. It was inevitable a game would spur my decision to get a PS4 at some point, it just came a bit earlier than expected.

We then have Dragon Age: Inquisition before the year is out, allegedly, so that should keep me busy.

PC Games. I’ve separated out this one as I’ve not been seriously involved in PC games for years, since dumping the gaming rig eons ago and deciding not to get a new one and a PC and tablet combination when I last invested in a PC. A large part of the reason for this was, as far as I was concerned, the death of the games that made the PC THE platform. Where did the military sims go? The big space sims? As far as I was concerned there was no reason to stick with the PC since I wasn’t a hard core FPS player.

The shape of PC gaming seems to be changing now, it’s becoming a specialised activity. A bit like vinyl records are to compact discs. The whole Kickstarter thing is helping with this, as it’s getting the games that used to exist funded that publishers no longer seem to want develop, market and sell. We have Star Citizen and Elite filling the big space-sim genre and they look glorious, so hopefully the quality and depth of games will hold up. We also have some great military sims coming out as free to play that hope to provide engines to simulate battlefields with people flying planes and controlling ground forces in the same theatre. These things demand add-ons, like flight sticks with thrust handles and whatever else but that’s part of the appeal. Specialised, but fantastic.

Once the next work project has settled in I’ll probably be investing in a gaming PC if Star Citizen et al look to be worth playing.

Role-playing games. Sit back, relax and let others take the strain. I’ve got a batch of games I’m happy with, the first time in a while, so I know what my toolbox is. We’re concentrating on playing Dungeons & Dragons 5E and the first official campaign Tyranny of Dragons, which is probably going to be an 18 month affair. That puts a main game slot way out into the future and that’s fine as I’m in no rush to take it. I suspect never. I’m taking a relaxed approach to it as we ease back into gaming regularly again. I still think I’ll run something again but I suspect it’ll be in one of three two formats: (1) games constructed exactly like convention games, they just get played by the group; (2) episodic games that aren’t heavily serialised and are potentially mission-based so they can slot in; and (3) mini-series games that run for 2 – 4 sessions that can theoretically fit between seasons or game transitions. At the moment, they’re probably in order of likelihood.

We shall see, it’s entirely possible I’ll never get around to it.

This also sees the re-initiation of Mega Gaming Sunday, in which I spend Sunday afternoon doing something gaming related and, obviously, bi-weekly this will be Tyranny of Dragons.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 08/09/2014 Bookmark and Share
The PS4 Era Begins
Keywords: Video Games; PS4; Destiny.

I have taken the plunge. As of Tuesday 9th September I shall be the owner of a PS4. What has driven me into this new console era? One word: Destiny. It’s all resting on that game at the moment. If that game fails to entice it will be a block of plastic and electronics that does exactly the same job as the PS3.

Well, until something better comes out like, say, Dragon Age: Inquisition in November (allegedly).

The signs are good. I liked Halo. I like gunning and looting in the form of Borderlands. I like grouping up for ‘dungeons’ and ‘raids’, though they’re obviously called something different in Destiny and kept to 3 and 6 players respectively. I like epic space fantasy imagery and storytelling that Bungie (and Blizzard) put out. In short, the space fantasy shooter with MMO learnings is about a sure thing as can be divined in advance, but you never know. Hell, these things, along with the odd other influence (the Fading Suns tabletop RPG, Mass Effect) lead to the damned fool crusade that was Fate Fading Suns.

It's also the source of the strangest, most oddly acted live action 'advert' to hit the web.Oh dear.

There will, no doubt, be more later. Lock and load.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 06/09/2014 Bookmark and Share
Ding! Super Daisy Dog Pet!
Keywords: Life.

It’s safe to say we are low responsibility people. We don’t have kids. We’d have an eye to renting rather than buying if it wasn’t financial suicide. We don’t do loans. We don’t do crusades or causes. We do our thing, remain considerate and let other people do their thing. One manifestation of this benign form of selfishness is we’ve never made a decision that stops us just doing stuff (you know, not that we run off and do crazy things regularly). This has meant we’ve been a small pet family: guinea pigs, hamsters and a chinchilla.

That was until about a month ago, when we got a dog.

We’d been thinking about it for a while, on and off, in that way that would probably never actually result in a decision. Speculating. Then family members started getting Lhasa Apso dogs for pets and that made us want one of them. It was probably that which pushed us from speculation to having made a decision, though it was one we didn’t fully acknowledge.

We did start thinking about having a puppy. Have to admit the low responsibility thing kicked in. House training. The chance it’ll eat parts of your house. Seemed like a lot of effort? So, that got us thinking about the Dog Trust as an opportunity to avoid having a puppy? It raised other issues like the background of the dog, whether such a dog itself would come with different issues? Anyway, things seemed to go from the idea to visiting the Dog Trust in Darlington very quickly.

We went with a dog in mind, but he was a bit of a psycho. He looked cute in his photo but he was kept in a special area and they obviously took a photo on a good day when he wasn’t wearing his Hannibal Lector mask. Too much effort. It was supposed to be a pet, not some form of prisoner outreach programme. We had a look around but I found it a bit…odd. A bit depressing. It just didn’t feel right. Don’t get me wrong, all the dogs are looked after very well, but it still felt like a bit of a prison. This is nothing to do with the the Dogs Trust, which is great, it just seemed a bit sad and it got to me.

We did spot a Border Collie (way too much effort) and a dog that looked like a raccoon, which was very cute and seemed very good natured. True, there was also some little Chihuahua-like dog doing its best ‘take me’ routine, but I don’t do small dogs. On the basis it gave us first refusal, and the history of Daisy, the dog that looked like a raccoon, seemed great we put our name down for her. She’d just come back in after she didn’t get on with the previous ‘owners’ cat, so was still undergoing the medical process.

In the next week Louise went to walk her a few times while I was working. We arranged for someone to come and check the house was appropriate. I went to walk her on Friday. Then on Saturday she was home and in the house!

The way it seems to work is there is a fast turnover of some dogs and I suspect a low turnover for others. Any dog that isn’t linked to the Lurcher or Staffie breeds has a better chance of being in the fast turnover, as does any dog without major psychological problems. As an example, Daisy had just come back in that weekend but had three people putting their name down for her. It was the same with a few others we spotted. The Dog Trust did mention they had trouble keeping the website current, so that indicates there is an increased chance a dog on the website is having trouble shifting. Tip? Whatever you see on the website visit the actual place.

We’ve had Daisy for about six weeks now and she’s great. It couldn’t have worked out better. She’s great with people. She’s fully house trained so we’ve had zero incidents. She is ridiculously good natured. She’s started to be walked off the lead while on the beach. The only slight issues we’ve had is some separation issues in the beginning, which is understandable, and she really doesn’t like cats. She also barks at some dogs, we’re not sure yet why she does that with some and not others. Lately we’ve also been walking her off the lead on the beach and it’s been going great.

It has meant some changes. The kitchen floor is just never going to be as clean as Louise likes it again. It does mean we can’t just go on relatively last minute holidays abroad, but we’ve not done much of that for a while. It’s getting me fit, as she gets two walks amounting to 2 – 4 miles a day. It’s like constantly being at Center Parks. Have to admit, at the moment, it may be doing my knees in. We’ve also started going to local places we didn’t even know existed as part of finding more interesting routes for walking the dog. Some of this will change when I rota onto a new project, but that’s how it’s playing out at the moment.

It couldn’t have worked out better.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 03/09/2014 Bookmark and Share
Alas, Doctor Who, I am Done!
Keywords: TV; Doctor Who.

I’ve made a decision. Not a big, consequential, life changing decision, but one that does represent the end of a personal TV era. I am done with Doctor Who. Don’t get me wrong, due to the pop culture nature of the show, the make-up of my Twitter feed, etc, it’s almost certainly not going to be the last time I watch an episode, but it’s lost its status as a show I look forward to and specifically sit down to watch.

This is a pity, as I really loved the show during the Eccleston, Tennant and Russell T Davies era. I’m afraid the Smith and Moffat era was a long, slow divorce from the show and regrettably I’m not convinced the promised changes with Capaldi are going to rejuvenate the show (quite the opposite from the derivative first two).

Now, the longer explanation.

The main issue is the number of stories (taking two-part episodes as one) I actually enjoyed as a piece of storytelling, rather than something that may have been a mild diversion on a Saturday evening, has dropped significantly. During the Russell T Davies era there was an average of 7 stories out of 11 I’d be happy to watch again and have. During the Moffat era, this has dropped to 1-3 episodes in seasons with 10 – 15 stories per season. In short, it’s gone from just over half the season, which is pretty good going on a show that services an 8 – 80 year old audience, to less than a tenth.

It’s not just about the numbers though, the episodes just have less impact.

There is a fundamental difference between how the episodes are written between the two eras of the show, and it’s obviously the case that I like the Russell T Davies era substantially better. I’m trying to explain why without going into some sort of mad laundry list. I think I liked the Russell T Davies era better because they were, by and large, an exercise in grand, operatic, emotional storytelling and this came across very well. The two-part episodes were almost always killer episodes. There is some amazingly good stuff in the Russell T Davies era of two-part episodes (some written by Moffat, who seems to be fantastic in isolated episodes when not running the show). I also think the stories were simpler, which many would think is a disadvantage, but in this case I don’t. The Russell T Davies era often ran with a core idea, wrapped emotion round it, told a good yarn and often with characters you cared about more.

The Moffat era, for the most part, seems colder, a bit more slapstick (though this may be more due to Smith). At the same time, it’s more complicated, which in a way is great but I never felt the added burden of complication was satisfactorily delivered on. The number of things that are done just because it seems cool to do them but are throw away elements also got really annoying. It was easily predicted this would be the case with the dinosaur in Deep Breath, for instance. It really drags when the show telegraphs itself that noisily. When the two-part episodes came along at the end of the season to deliver the ‘pay off’ it always felt muted and a significant let down. They pay off never came. I never felt this during the Russell T Davies era, with the possible exception of Tennant’s final episode, which just felt a bit overdone. It’s basically come down to the fact that I don’t like Moffat’s vision of the show and, ironically, considering his episodes during the Russell T Davies era, the way he writes Doctor Who.

In fact, the only thing I take away from the Moffat era as a positive which, to quote the Doctor is fantastic, is the way the show has distanced itself from mundane Earth and made it more about the Doctor being a Time Traveller. One disadvantage of Russell T Davies era was not that it was on Earth a lot, but that it would occasionally have an ‘Eastenders’ feel when it was on Earth (to be fair, this got better in later Russell T Davies series as well). Moffat’s era wraps the Doctor in his Time Traveller nature and changes the way the show comes across when the show is set on Earth. Moffat also has the advantage of a much more mature show that was allowed to be off planet more. That’s not enough though, as I find myself wanting that element injecting into the Russell T Davies era rather than it saving the Moffat one.

In a way, I’ve given it a way longer divorce than I should have done. I was hoping there would be a transformation with Capaldi, but I don’t see it yet. In fact, based on the first two the show isn’t any darker and has been very derivative. It’s also a bit odd, with the growth of the character becoming very confused. One of the strengths of the previous Doctors is the next one was born out of the narrative conclusion of the last: Eccleston resolved his remorse over ending the Time War so became a ‘pulp hero’ and Tennant had an issue with feeling ‘old’ and didn’t want it to end so he regenerated into a young, vibrant, almost Peter Pan version of himself. This hasn’t happened with Capaldi, he just exists and seems to be treading old narrative threads that have been resolved? I was hoping Day of the Doctor would have lead into something more transformative in terms of the Doctor’s character (you know, the revelations about Gallifrey and all that). While it made sense in the episode Dalek for the Doctor to be labelled as ‘being a good Dalek’ because of the dark place he was in I’m not sure it made sense when it was repeated in Into the Dalek. Anyway, when I saw the clip for episode three I suddenly found myself not being able to stomach another third episode ‘historical’ piece which will feature, wait for it, robots. Oh joy.

So, we shall see how things go. Due to the fact it airs on a Saturday, Louise will probably watch it and it gets recorded by the Tivo, so there is every chance I’ll catch the episodes at some point. It’s ceased to be must watch TV though. It’s no longer has that feel of an event. In a way, it’s become like a show I’ve already watched but you catch a repeat every so often because, at the moment, it feels like I’m watching repeats!

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 02/09/2014 Bookmark and Share
Re-Engaging With Star Trek
Keywords: TV; Star Trek.

It's been a while since I watched any Star Trek. This is to be expected as Star Trek: The Next Generation aired 1987 - 1994, Deep Space Nine 1993 - 1999 and Star Trek: Voyager 1995 - 2001, though I never consistently watched Voyager, but despite this I seem to have seen the vast majority of it. Okay, there is Enterprise, but then it only realised what it was supposed to be in the season it got cancelled (which was very unfortunate).

That is 13 years since Voyager completed and 24 since Best of Both Worlds hit the airwaves and Star Trek: The Next Generation cemented its big screen credentials. I've not got them on DVD but I used to have all TNG on VHS tape, then there was the big clean out. Basically, they're not in my library, or haven't been for some time.

This is a bit strange as Star Trek used to be quite a big part of my life. It got me into science fiction, but largely Star Trek, conventions. A new circle of friends was formed based around genre TV, conventions and gaming. I met Louise at a Star Trek Convention. I used to buy the VHS tapes for TNG so I could watch them before they aired in the UK, as the BBC was erratic at best. I really liked TNG, but my favourite was DS9. It was a strange time as DS9 was the maligned show, to such an extent that they made Voyager two years into its run. The DS9 actors used to turn up at conventions and have to 'sell' the show to the fans, while Voyager just became the natural successor. Fans had a narrow view of what Star Trek should be and many didn’t really understand how stories were constructed. Still, the second tier status of DS9 did probably allow to sneak in a great series that probably would have not happened if it had been the true heir apparent.

I recently watched the SFX magazine and SyFy top 20 Star Trek episodes (from TNG, DS9 and Voyager) and it was great. Really brought home how good those shows are. The nineties had some great genre TV and Star Trek was part of that, you could even argue it kicked it off.

Obviously, this is a good way to watch Star Trek as you're not having to plough through seven series of 24 - 26 episodes each. That's one thing I don't really miss, really long series. The list is quality controlled to some extent and you get a sample from all three shows. I'll admit to also being very interested in how the Top 20 panned out.

There was a bit of a TNG bias, which was probably inevitable. It didn't ruin things too much as they were good TNG episodes for the most part. It tended to show up in a couple of episodes being on the list that probably shouldn't have been there. I'm thinking of Cause and Effect and Relic, both of which undoubtedly pushed out better episodes in TNG and DS9. Relic was interesting because it gained from being a TNG episode and harking back to the classic show. It wasn't the only episode that gained from this (more on that later). It is a good episode, but I'm pretty sure something like Duet was a better choice if DS9 was going to get second place.

Voyager only got four episodes. Probably not surprising. I never felt that that Voyager was pushing any real boundaries. It had a chance to, if it had kept to its premise like DS9, but it quickly fell into similar territory to TNG. The Voyager entries were interesting. One of them didn't really deserve to be there as Message in a Bottle was really bad. Okay, it was probably a pivotal episode, in that it got Voyager in communication with the Alpha Quadrant (and it also seemed to introduce the Hirogen?), but its implementation was puerile. What the episodes did show, is despite being so late in the overall Star Trek run, Voyager had some great time travel related episodes. A Year of Hell and Timeless were really good, using temporal shenanigans to tell an interesting story and they also constructed the time travel element in interesting ways. I'd assumed this whole area had become tiresome by this point so it was surprising to see. The Killing Game was okay, but it probably says a lot that a solid, but not outstanding piece of Trek, made it into the list from the Voyager portfolio.

So, what was missing? In my view Duet from DS9. It should have been in the top 10, I'd have even pushed it into the top 5 or 3. It certainly deserved its place in the top 3 more than Trials and Tribulations, which was the episode that most benefited from its Classic Trek nostalgia-fest status, albeit a good episode. Then there is Darmok from TNG. I was surprised that wasn't in the list. There probably should have been a bit more DS9 in the list, but it was inevitable people would vote for ‘any nominated’ TNG episodes above and beyond DS9. Still, the serial nature of DS9 in its final third makes things a bit difficult.

Still, DS9 has the benefit of being the show that is maturing with age and it was great re-engaging with some classic TV from what, I assume, now counts as yesteryear!

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 31/08/2014 Bookmark and Share
The Tyranny of Dragons Challenge
Keywords: Role-Playing Games; Dungeons and Dragons; Tyranny of Dragons.

Gaming died over the summer (along with this blog, but that’s potentially for another day). It’s always a difficult affair, proving disruptive to the gaming schedule, this time we decided to just give up all together. Traditionally, the group has always given a new edition of Dungeons & Dragons a good run. The group formed around 3E. We ran through all the tiers of play in 4E in one campaign. Now that 5E is out we’re kick-starting the group again by playing through the first official campaign: Tyranny of Dragons.

I’m intrigued by 5E. It manages to remain very much Dungeons & Dragons, while being a very simple game, but seemingly with a deceptive tactical depth. It has some great rules, such as advantage and disadvantage replacing most bonuses. The concept of bounded accuracy to keep what bonuses do exist within a smaller range, which has innumerable spin-off advantages such as shields actually being awesome, a +1 sword being the dog’s bollocks, etc. Inspiration and Ideals, Bonds and Flaws which have a loose analogy with Fate Points and Aspects or Burning Wheel’s Beliefs, Instincts and Traits going on. Very loose, but still interesting. It’s all good.

Many are describing the game as being like 2E or 3E, very few people describe it as being like 4E. In fact, the games apparent rejection of 4E is seen as one of the great things about the game. I think a lot of people have it wrong and the genius of the edition is it’s become some sort of Rorschach test with people seeing in it what they want to see but primarily not 4E. Personally, I think the game is much simpler than 2E and has nowhere near the mad, broken simulative bent of 3E. The best description is basic Dungeons & Dragons (not advanced of any edition) and 4E. That’s right: 4E. There is a heck of a lot of 4E in 5E and they’ve just layered it on a very basic engine. It’s ironic really, as it seems all it has taken to make some 4E concepts suddenly miraculously good to detractors is to give them a bit of a simulative veneer.

Still, the fact at-will, encounter and daily ‘powers’ are still present is fine with me (they’re just now called short and long rests). Hell, we even have a martial class that can only do a certain amount of unique moves a day, but apparently that’s okay now. People were disgusted everyone had spells (though they weren’t really spells) in 4E, yet the fact every class either uses actual spells or has a variant that uses actual spells in 5E is perfectly fine. The only character in our game that isn’t a spell casting class is the fighter class and he has, you guessed it, essentially 4E-like powers (and even he has an option at third level to go Arcane Knight). It’s very hard for your spell casting to be unique in 5E which is much worse than in 4E! It’s all good now, though, apparently.

Anyway, I’m not complaining, I really like the fact the great principles of 4E are embedded in a much simpler game. It’s seems so far towards the simpler end I think it’s a Dungeons & Dragons even I could manage. I tip my hat to the designers, who have managed to let everyone see in the game what they want to see by a mixture of clever design in some cases and odd compromises (such as the addition of the incompetent tier for the you’re peasants with swords brigade) in others that don’t cause any real problems.

Tyranny of Dragons is also an interesting concept as it’s the first time we haven’t gone with something of our own devising.

I’m looking forward to playing through a purchased campaign, basically because I’ve never done it before. I missed out on all the big, historic Dungeons & Dragons modules, never hit any of the notable Call of Cthulhu adventures and I only got a single sessions experience of The Enemy Within, the eponymous Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play campaign. So, doing the whole shared experience thing of playing through an official module is quite exciting. It also introduces a few ‘old school’ wrinkles, like books the players aren’t allowed to buy or certainly not read, as well as some more modern dilemmas like avoiding spoilers on social media. I’m keen to see how the shared gaming experience works out.

It’ll be interesting to see how close the module stays to the official content. Will it largely stay true to the module? Will it spin off on such a tangent the material becomes less and less useful? To what degree does the module make life easier for the person running the game? We tend to have a model of play that means only the broadest of principles can hold at the table (and even these sometimes break – but that often is followed by a collapse) while actual plot events shoot of in many and varied directions, so it’ll be interesting to see how some sense of a pre-created plot holds up and how the material is designed to manage player input.

It’s a long commitment, something we’d sort of decided not to do as a group at the beginning of the summer but, you know what? I no longer care. It will hopefully be something that runs steadily. I’d like to see it through once we start it. After a series of games that petered out on the GM side or got cancelled on the player side it’ll be great just to have something that isn’t facing that problem from one week to the next.

And it seems, if you want that, you pick something with character power advancement, a tactical element and not too many fancy new widgets (then overlay all that stuff with a social contract anyway). I’ve given up being frustrated by this as well. So it just might work. I am crossing my fingers.

Tyranny of Dragons. Bring it on.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 29/08/2014 Bookmark and Share
Godzilla: A Blockbuster from Another Age
Keywords: Film; Film Review.

I have seen Godzilla. If you want the short answer it’s quite simple: it’s great, but not awesome or the best blockbuster ever. If you’re in it for the big disaster, broadly painted, macro event of monsters duking it out it is brilliantly done and well-paced and looks great throughout. Godzilla, the monster, is a feast for the eyes, as are all of them. The micro-human drama is weak. It’s worth seeing though for the spectacle of it all. In the macro, it’s beautiful.

The greatest thing that can be said about Godzilla is it came within a hairs whisker of being as good as the blockbusters of old. You know, the Spielberg sort of era, rather than the Transformers age.

Warning: This longer answer has spoilers!

Godzilla is great but falls short of awesome because it handles the macro and wide angle stuff much better than the micro, close-up and intimate stuff. It gets everything about the monsters and the global disaster event right. Very right. It fails at the human drama, especially beyond the first act of the film. It’s also true to say the first and third act are more exciting than the middle, albeit the middle is perfectly fine.

Visually and aurally the film is nothing short of stunning…right from the opening credits with all its period piece news and military reports on Godzilla sightings and nuclear testing. It just gets you totally in the mood. The opening score is also great, which I enjoyed throughout backed up with the sound, which is brilliant. The sound balances all sorts of scale and types of action and it never gets confusing or distracting instead adding to the experience. The film always looks and sounds great. The Godzilla roar is just…hell yeah!

Jaws may have you wanting a bigger boat, Godzilla will make you want a bigger sound system when it hits the retail shelves.

The monsters are a visual treat. How they hang together and move is always very clear. I was concerned about the MUTO idea, at first. I thought they might be generic, boring monsters with weird-ass anatomy that you could never figure out. They really work though. Always remaining clear and the EMP powers are fantastic visually and atmospherically. They’re also set up quite well as you’re rooting for Godzilla but really he’s out to kill a family who haven’t really done anything wrong but seek to do what nature intended!

Godzilla is brilliant, they’ve obviously dropped the comedy human aspects associated with the original films while still managing to give him character. His challenge to the MUTO when they first start fighting is realistic yet great. His ‘I am knackered moment’ when he bows his head like a weary human is fantastic. He has weight. He has bulk. His build up to the atomic breath was…oh yeah, here it comes! It is all brilliantly done. In all honesty, the best way they’ve visualised Godzilla is in the difference between Godzilla on land and Godzilla at sea. Godzilla at sea is beautiful, and beautifully realised in the film (swimming alongside a fleet, etc), both in terms of the grace and the awesome destruction as he approaches shore or the majestic rise out of the depths. While on land he’s a lumbering hulk, ungainly and destructive. In the sea he’s a gymnast, on land he’s weightlifter. Very well done, his back spines have never been as majestic as they are cutting through the ocean.

As for the monster clashes? I loved them and I thought there was just enough and not too much. The clashes were always going to be the focus of the last act as too much of it gets very boring, very fast. It’s not like they are going to spice it up with the old comedy like antics of the monster suite? I liked how they varied it up between wide angle shots, views from the ‘ants’ on the ground and camera footage. It stopped it all feeling like one long sequence of special effects (though this film has some of the best special effect monsters not looking like special effects that have been seen) punching each other, which bore-fests like Pacific Rim had despite having human pilots! The whole fight sequence was breath-taking, merging the post-911 (sad, but true) disaster realism with monsters duking it out. This even meant the usual routine of using rain, darkness and ‘fog’ to mask the special effects didn’t seem as *eye rolling*, it added to the apocalyptic nature of events along with the score and sound.

That’s the awesome macro, the weaknesses of the film are in the micro.

The human characters of the film start off well as Bryan Cranston as the conspiracy mad father and Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins as the primary ‘monster’ scientists are great. I can’t help but think more should have been done with all of them yet Bryan Cranston’s character dies at the end of the first act, without transferring any purpose to his son, and Watanabe and Hawkins are seriously under-used as dramatic exposition. This is very disappointing and you can’t help but feel there is a different script that could have all used them better throughout for maximum effect.

Regrettably, the main character are actually played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen. Olsen does a solid job as the concerned wife in jeopardy. Taylor-Johnson is asleep through the whole of this film. I honestly believe, to use an acting term, he had no idea what his purpose or motivation was once he didn’t have Cranston or Olsen to provide scenes with conflict and drama. He just wondered through it. This is odd, as he’s usually pretty good. Hopefully the two will be better in Age of Ultron.

It’s interesting to compare this film with Cloverfield, which I also liked, though it lacks the retro-blockbuster feel of this film, it certainly did the micro human drama a lot better. I was actually drawn into the love story and the guy’s search for the girl he had never told he loved. In contrast, the beauty of monsters and the macro apocalypse in Cloverfield pales in comparison to what is on show in Godzilla.

If they figure out a way to make the human drama more engaging within the macro experience of the monster apocalypse they won’t just have a good movie on their hands they’ll have a classic. It’s a pity in didn’t happen in this film, it can’t be described as the best blockbuster ever, but it certainly is a very good monster disaster film. It also feels like it’s from another cinematic age, which is a good thing. Enjoy the macros as it, at least, is amazing.

A sequel planned already? Excellent. There are a number of things they need to address in the sequel to raise the film from great to awesome.

As indicated, they need to make the human characters more interesting. They need to do this by making them pivotal and integrated into the plot rather than just observers or explainers of it. There has to be meaningful human conflict. One avenue this could take is to ensure the sequel has villains the human cast can be in conflict with? I’m pretty sure I remember the original Godzilla films being like this? They had conspiracies, aliens or whatever else being behind some of Godzilla’s enemies?

While I realise the darker, more realistic tone established in the Godzilla 2014 film probably will discount the more comic-book elements I am sure a way forward can be found. You can re-tone a lot of things and the sequel has to somehow connect the monsters and the personal drama much better. Personally, I’d vote for Mecha-Godzilla! No more ridiculous than a giant Moth and surely it makes perfect sense for someone to build a Godzilla defence should he decide to go postal?

I’d also like to see less focus on the military next time. While I’m fine with the military porn of this film, it’ll get tiresome if the military is the focus every time. They should focus more on Dr Serizawa and Vivienne Graham in the next film. Less military, more science. I could easily see a monster from space being tonally acceptable tonally and the film having a bit more of NASA spin like in Armageddon, dropping the Transformers-like military focus.

In the sequel, the vast majority of the new Godzilla can remain the same, just with a few tweaks to improve the human drama and the film would go from great to awesome.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 23/05/2014 Bookmark and Share
Gaming is Dead! Long Live Gaming!
Keywords: Role-Playing Games; RPG Theory.

It’s safe to say, in gaming terms, a pinnacle was reached in the last quarter of 2012 and the first of 2013. We’d finished the 4E Campaign, the longest and most consistent campaign we’d run. Then I spent about a year out of gaming to come back for the Prometheus Institute game. It was great, probably the most fun game I’ve been in as a player. In truth, the Prometheus Institute game was also a bad sign, as it was another of the groups get out while the going is good games, while modelling the type of game I like. Epic clash. No idea about anyone else but it’s not felt exactly the same since?

Then I went on to run Fate Fading Suns and I was really enjoying it!

Then the nerf bomb hit and it became and the gaming group decided to discontinue it. I’ll admit, I instantly went from a gaming high point to a gaming low point. It wasn’t the cancellation as such (albeit I was really wanting to see it through), but the realisations that came from the cancellation.

The long version of these realisations can be found in Fate Fading Suns – Cancelled (18/5/2013), A GM Practicality Problem (27/05/2013), Burst, Baby Burst! (20/07/2013) and Gaming Twilight (04/10/2013), the short version can be summarised as the dynamics (rather than individuals) of the gaming group not liking the timings of how I like to game, the types of rules I like(at least not for long) and, to some degree, the type of game I like to run.

The realisation over the holiday is to twist it all on its head. Stop trying to conform (in some ways Fate Fading Suns was following a ‘go long’ 4E Campaign model, but around 60% shorter, when in truth I’d created the classic get out while the going is good game).

Stop trying to go with the sort of unwritten, amorphous social contract. Instead play more of a part in writing the damned contract. Just do what you want to do and people will either go with it or not. If they don’t, then at least you’re not navigating the treacherous dynamics that, to be fair, I’ve got better things to spend my time on.

In short: don’t try and divine requirements, let others sign-up to yours (or not) even if this means not getting to go with an idea (ever). If that means no running then fine. I don’t do much else on the terms of others so I don’t see why my gaming should be different.

The principles that summarise my holiday thoughts are detailed below.

Principle One: I enjoy Running

I enjoy running. In fact, I still think part of the problem with the gaming twilight, along with the shifts in the gaming group (life moves on, dynamics change) is that I suspect my gaming rewards now come more from running periodically than they do from playing. This is a minor miracle all things considered. Something peaked across the 4E Campaign, and more specifically The Prometheus Institute, and playing isn’t delivering as much as running Fate Fading Suns was delivering.

Principle Two: Sunday is just a slot!

In line with this I am cutting myself off from the shifting dynamics that people in the GM’ing chair of the Sunday gaming group. I’m out. I’m not in the running. Should something I run naturally flow into that for a period, fine, but I’m not jockeying for ‘the next campaign’ that keeps the Sunday slot going. In fact, I’m not even sure I care about the Sunday gaming purely in the context of me running and, if so, it’s only because it’s a very good time slot considering my problems of running on an evening.

I’m not even focused on the participants of the Sunday gaming group, they’re critical, in that some, but possibly not others, are likely to be the most likely people to give something I want to run a shot, but that’s about it. The gaming group is not a constraint, though it is likely to be a significant influence.

Principle Three: Decouple the Obligation

While I really enjoyed Fate Fading Suns delivering consistently and regularly is not something I’ve traditionally done. It’s been intermittent and done in bursts. I’ll also admit to being quite selfish. I don’t believe I’m selfish in a way that is malicious but I do tend to gravitate to wanting to do things on my own terms rather than feeling obligated to do it on the terms of others. I've even orientated my career around this...what can I say!

I’ll freely admit to being obligated to run every two weeks is a problem for me. I want to run when I want to run, not necessarily when the norms of the group decide I should. It is as simple as that.

There is also a ‘work life balance’ element to it as quite often work just pushes out time to think about much else so the commitment can become an obligation I begrudge when time to gestate such things gets pushed out.

Principle Four: The Joy of Prep

There is a model of gaming that I currently find infuriating: don’t prepare, just turn up, riff off the players and make it all up as you go along. It’s almost a bloody religion. Any attempt to discuss preparation styles, degree of preparation, etc, and some wise ass will turn up and go on about how preparation is for fools (along with some bragging rights on their ability to weave the awesome from nothing) and with a big implication if you only realised the truth of the ‘improvisation awesome’ your gaming ‘ills’ would be cured.

I’d even go as far to say sauntering up to the gaming table with your All Rolled Up, sitting down and deliver the awesome from nothing has turned into some sort of Iron GM psychology self-improvement thing.

I’m a ‘slow prep’ GM. I don’t write out 20 pages of handwritten of stuff like I used to do when I was young, but I do think about it. It’s not about what will happen, but what could. It’s about framing and a loose structure and a set of principles to hang things off. It’s a strategic prep not a tactical prep. It’s a set of tools based on navigating the experience of all concerned not prescriptive planning of what will be.

You know what? I enjoy that, it’s an essential part of gaming for me. The 100% improve zealots can shove it up their arse.

Principle Five: Event Not Campaign

It’s going to be more about gaming events, rather than gaming campaigns. In a way, this is another way of saying I’m not going long, I am, for now, going short.

I don’t mean this in the sense of it being an awesome event, but more that it will feel more like one in terms of the commitment, temporal elements, etc. I suppose you could see it’s also been influenced by the convention model. At the risk of using an analogy that'll probably prove wrong it's 3 Star Wars films rather than a TV series. The Marvel Heroic Role-Playing game provides a good example and it’s where I’ve nicked it from, they’re even called events. It may even involve the use of pre-generated characters in some cases, at least initially, but not forever (it’ll be contextual). When player created characters are used they will always be a crucible and a way to GM / Player-side stuff to coincide.

…And Finally!

I am getting off the gaming group treadmill. I’ll do what I want at the time and pacing I want to do it. This may mean I never run anything because I’ve created a set of principles that combine to make it impossible in the prevailing dynamics (quite possibly). It may mean I never actually pony up with anything. It may mean no one ever signs on for any thing I want to give ago. That’s fine.

It will mean, should the stars align, I’ll be liberated enough to bloody enjoy it on my own terms with a better chance of enjoying it with others who agree with them.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 18/05/2014 Bookmark and Share
Tenerife #7: Doing Nothing II in a Great Hotel
Keywords: Places; Tenerife May 2014.

We had another day doing nothing much again today, so I'm going to go on about how good the Bahia Principe, Tenerife is.

The Bahia Principe, Tenerife, is quite simply the best hotel we've stayed in (images above). Period. It's pretty much perfect. The room is large, clean and perfectly located with a great view. The whole hotel is spotless and kept to a level of cleanliness that is beyond measure. The staff are professional and helpful. While not absolutely essential they all speak great English, primarily because it seems to be a very British resort in terms of the guest profile. The pool is great and, unlike many a Spanish pool, heated. Food is good to very nice and there is always something interesting at the buffets. It’s always hot. Always fresh. The table service restaurants are very nice.

It's also worth mentioning the other guests as they play a large part in the experience. The Bahia Princess, Tenerife gets a nice, civilised customer base. It's a mix of people, but they are invariably older or families with younger children (at least in the month of May). The kids are great and are amazingly well behaved give or take the expected odd moment of stress. We've not noticed a lot of teenagers and based on our experience groups of younger holidaymakers just don't use the hotel. Despite the amount of alcohol that is on tap there is no rowdy behaviour or any outward signs of drunkenness. You couldn't want a better set of guests in your hotel.

The entertainment borders on the great to the surreally bad, but not in a boring way. The acts brought are usually very good. You essentially have a 'Red Coat' sort of experience through the Fiesta Consulting staff who the hotel have outsourced their entertainment programme to. The Fiesta Consulting staff on-site are great. The Fiesta Consulting staff deserve a big thumbs up, even if their two nights of entertainment is more funny because it's not great!

Are there any disadvantages? The only one I can think if it’s not centrally located in a town, either Plays de las Americas or Costa Adeje, despite the name of its sister hotel. This could mean some people might describe it as ‘remote’. I wouldn’t so much call it remote, but it is outside of a centre. There is a bus at the top of the street the hotel is on that can get your to the major conurbations in the area. We thought it was ideally located, but if you want to literally step outside to the restaurants or night life in Playas de las Americas then it’s not the hotel for you.

The Bahia Princess, Tenerife offers an absolutely amazing experience for what isn't a wallet busting price. I can't recommend it highly enough. In fact, we've waxed on about so much to Louise's parents we think they might have already booked to come even before we get on the plain back into the country.

The Bahia Principe, Tenerife is also great because it's the younger sister of the Bahia Principe, Costa Adeje (images above). In truth, they're effectively one big resort, but the Tenerife is slightly separated (some people in the Costa Adeje will have a longer walk to the entertainment as the Adeje is that big) and they duplicate facilities such as pools, restaurants, receptions, etc. The Tenerife hotel is smaller; a bit more boutique. It's certainly quiet as once you’re done with the entertainment you nip back to your hotel and you can't hear a thing. While its larger brother is undoubtedly a very nice hotel as well, I'd probably always go for the Bahia Principe, Tenerife on the experience we've had.

It’s that good, if Louise wasn’t restricted by work holidays I’d probably be going back relatively soon. While I don’t get paid when I don’t work, sometimes the flexibility is to die for.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 09/05/2014 Bookmark and Share
Tenerife #6: In The Caldera of a Volcano!
Keywords: Places; Ultimate Alliance; Tenerife May 2014.

We booked the trip to Mount Teide because you sort of have to, it's the major natural attraction of the island, a volcano and a national park to boot. It's one of those things were if you didn't go you'd always wonder what you missed. The problem was we did the same when we spent some time in Las Vegas and went to The Grand Canyon and it was the biggest waste of money we ever spent. I am sure the place is great but some combination of when, who and the style of tour meant it didn't leave much impact on us at the time.

Thankfully, Teide wasn't another Grand Canyon, it was much better, the place and the trip was fantastic. Highly recommended.

The trip started at 0730, which was our second early start along with Loro Parque earlier in the week. This means a brief breakfast from the snack bar that is open throughout the night. It took an hour and a half to pick up from various hotels and then we were off. Through the mountain, into the forest and then over the caldera and into the volcano. I never really knew what to imagine, but it never occurred to me the whole national park is in the caldera of the volcano, the whole place is massive.

It’s a fascinating tour and you get to see some awe inspiring landscapes. It just never occurred to me that the caldera would be miles across and a whole ‘region’ in itself. There is multiple hill representing previous eruptions. Lave flows of various ages. Strange plants. It really is like some sort of land that time forgot but without the dinosaurs. Very impressive.

We thought we might get a bit bored, but we found it completely fascinating, even the fact it was a bit too windy for the cable cars couldn't ruin our mood. If we had any criticisms, it would be that some of the timings were a bit off. There was the odd area we’d have liked to spend a bit more time in rather than having to spend an hour at some guy’s restaurant. He has three apparently which service all the tours. Good for him. Sweet deal. Still, the deal included letting people eat the food they brought with them, so he didn't have it all sewn up.

The entertainment in the hotel in the evening was madness again, as the Fiesta Consulting team had another epic: Glee. A similar format to Cinemania: film clips from the show, dance routines to a soundtrack and also some miming and dancing. All a bit strange and a bit like something your kids might put on in your home! It is funny though, in a strange way. Tomorrow it is acrobats, following the format of the entertainment being amazing and surreal madness in equal measure.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 08/05/2014 Bookmark and Share
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