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Ian O'Rourke
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The Great Not-DSLR Experiment
Keywords: Technology; Photography.

I remember a time when buying a computer was complicated. It took a lot of research. Now, unless you’re doing specific, high-end activities it’s pretty hard to make an error. Computers have become commodities for the vast majority of uses. The options are pretty ubiquitous. I am glad those complex times are over, so glad I’ve saved a fortune due to not wanting to get into the transaction costs associated with purchasing a gaming rig.

Digital cameras, once you decided you might want to experiment past point and shoot? Nightmare, very much like buying computers in the 90’s. I looked beyond the point and shoot and I found the choices bewildering. It’s quite easy to buy something you won’t use. Way easy to over invest in too much camera you don’t need (I suspect many, many people do this) or be lumbered with something too restrictive.

The transactions costs are very high.

It started quite simply: point and shoot has become superfluous due to my phone and the fact I can instantly upload, but I wanted a beyond point and shoot camera to experiment with? Make it fun and to take more photos.

Probably, like a lot of people, I instantly jumped to: I need a DSLR, right? I went down that route for a while, but it started to frustrate me. They can be a bit big. A bit heavy. Not all, but most. I certainly didn’t like the sound of my camera equipment becoming a pain. I may want to take more photos but I’m not seeking for it to become some sort of major focus of my life. It started to dawn on me it all had to be convenient. If it wasn’t it would sit on a shelf. The narrative around life with a DSLR didn’t sound easy and convenient. It sounded a bit like World of Warcraft, but for cameras, involving some things that didn’t sound like fun to get to the fun bit?

So, I need a bridging camera, right? These seemed to be the next best thing. Directly marketed for people wanting to get beyond point and shoot. Perfect. No so much. They seem to be point and shoot cameras but with a massive zoom on them? Ridiculous zooms. Unless I am missing something, unusable zooms due to the shaky hands of the user? Okay, some of them allow more setting tweaking, but then so does my old Canon Powershot 640 but it was still a bit frustrating in terms of actual options and operational speed. So, probably not a bridging camera then. In fact, all the bridging cameras did was lead me down the rabbit hole of why a bridging camera can have 60x optical zoom but a DSLR always seemed to be a 3x with all this mm lark? Yeah, I know, but what did I say about transaction costs?

Conundrum. What to do? Well, this is where the mirrorless camera comes in, or Compact System Camera (CSC) or Digital Single Lense Mirrorless (DSLM) camera depending on the acronym that is flavour of the month. One thing you’ll learn is there is a lot of acronym decoding when you start looking beyond your point and shoot.

It took a bit more to research, to ensure I wasn’t buying the Betamax of camera technology, but I’ve actually come round to thinking they might well be the future. They are lighter and smaller across both the camera and lenses. They also come in various sizes from ‘larger compact’ size to the typical bodies of DSLR cameras just less bulky. Electronic viewfinders sound cool, so does the idea of the camera being built around using the touch screen. Professionals have also started using them, with a number switching completely to mirrorless and getting off the DSLR bandwagon. They seem to offer almost DSLR quality in a much more fun, probably used more often package. Perfect for me. I fully believe for the vast majority of people, beyond a community of professionals taking certain types of pictures (and only a few types), the DSLR will soon not need to exist.

I finally went for the Lumix G6.

There was other options, but they started to get more expensive (the Olympus camera is nice but expensive, for example) and I wasn’t wanting to gravitate towards the £1k mark. There was also a few things I wanted: a DSLR-like body, an articulated LCD screen (as I got too used to them on the Powershot cameras), the option to play with an additional lense from the start while sticking to my price range and one of these new-fangled electronic viewfinders and, overall, a camera at the top end of enthusiast to give me room to fiddle (and also because the chances I’ll go for a camera in the professional range is extremely small and I suspect many people who have one don’t need one).

Trying it out in a store proved…difficult. The consolidation of electronics stores doesn’t give you much options these days (and the shrinking of Jessops). Not only that two other factors kick in to make buying certain highly rated cameras difficult. That’s right, a universally praised, gold awarded camera across numerous magazines and websites, is hard to purchase. First, the chain stores only seem to stock a big enough range in the superstores. Across PC World, so I also assume Currys, the Tesside store was the only one with a Lumix G6 in, which was lucky! Then, when you get in the store, you have to avoid all the Canon and Nikon branded staff and hired enthusiasts who will try and persuade you buy something else.

There was a lot of discussion around how the sale of mirrorless cameras at the top enthusiast and professional end has faced resistant due to the big names like Canon and Nikon being slow to move, the fact it takes individual mind sets time to shift, the image of ‘professional’ meaning big, DSLR camera and the key factor: Canon and Nikon invest heavily in store presence. This happened to me. Initially on going into the store I was pulled straight to Canon’s first attempt at a mirrorless camera as my criteria match mirrorless and I’d mentioned being really interested in the Lumix G6. Of course, he couldn’t demo me the EOS-M because it wasn’t charged (but I am sure all the DSLR’s were demo ready). I literally had to go out of the store and come back when the people in Canon and Nikon shirts seemed to have reduced so the shopping experience had less..frustrations.

Easy to see how people end up buying certain models and technologies if they go in less focused.

The camera has been ordered on next day delivery to store, once it arrives the experiment can continue!

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 17/04/2014 Bookmark and Share
Storium – The Second Kickstarter
Keywords: Role-Playing Games; RPG Theory.

I’ve backed my second Kickstarter. The first one was Fate Core this second one is something quite different: Storium. I’ve opted for the second backer level, which gives me access during the testing phases as well as a first year subscription. It wasn’t a vast amount of money and I am intrigued by the idea. I figured even if all I end up doing is poking around, experimenting and seeing how they are doing things it was worth what I put down.

So, what is this Storium thing?

Storium is a web-based storytelling game, by turning writing into a turn-based, multiplayer game. I suspect some people would say calling it a game is a stretch, but it holds if you accept that the outcome of the game is good story, good narrative. I’ve only had a surface look but it seems to me to be a cross between interactive storytelling on forums, but with ‘game’ and ‘structural’ elements similar (yet different) to role-playing games like Fate (the cards have a lot of similarities with Aspects as they represent narrative and story artefacts) and Primetime Adventures (in terms of scripts and TV shows being the obvious structural method of delivery) and both these games naturally lend themselves to players positioning themselves as writers, not actors.

I’m sure there are other influences, but these are the ones that connect with me, from experience.

Oddly, another reason I signed up was my experience with Neverwinter Nights, the older version, not the current MMO-like version. This was a 3D CRPG that could be DM’ed. While there was obviously an action component to it, the games I used to be involved in running with a DM team very much played out like a medium for telling stories, and a lot of that came down to writing, albeit it was more interactive and immediate than Storium.

At the moment, I’ve just had a poke around the worlds and a few games in motion. I’ve not played any games or run any. It is intriguing. While how the game plays out probably has a lot of actual play learning to it, and I suspect there are quite a few variations within the high level framework, the key factors to take away from where I am at the moment is the artefacts used in the game, which are called cards.

Characters are made up cards covering Natures (Expedition Leader), Strengths (Worldwide Associates) and Weaknesses (Enemies). These are a sort of mash-up of Fate Core aspects, Primetime Adventures edges and a range of other similar features in games like Sorcerer, Over the Edge, etc. You can then go on to have central motivations in the form of a Subplot (Race to the Lost Plateau!), which is the story your character exists to explore. Characters interact with Assets (stuff, things and gear) and Goals, which I need to get a better handle on as they seem to be things given out by the narrator during a scene. Its possible Goals could be similar to Milestones in Marvel Heroic Role-Playing (as completing them results in rewards), but more dynamic and applied in a scene by the narrator. They’re obviously a way of leading the story slightly.

The Narrator also has Places (Bridge of the Airship Astonishing), Characters who are in conflict and Obstacles (Escape the Raptors!) which represent sources of physical or environmental conflict. It’s easy to see how these tools can be used to give the scenes created a focus and a central conflict in a similar way to how Primetime Adventures probably should work but actually has less guidance than what is provided here in Storium with its use of ‘Cards’.

The various worlds that are available within Storium, and new ones are released as stretch goals on the Kickstarter, are a bit misleading I think. It’s not that they are bad, they are a good idea, I’m just not sure the name is a good one (though I admit I don’t have a better name). They’re not worlds in the sense a novelist might build a world or an RPG setting book might present a world. They are more like TV series bibles that are awaiting a writing team, all constructed using the artefacts of Storium. This is a good idea. Once you get your head around this, which generally takes about ten minutes after some poking around, it is easy to see how you would create your own series bible. There is probably some mileage in a ‘Storium World Building Guide’ for people wanting to establish their own series bibles for their own games. It seems natural, but I never underestimate what is natural to some and not to others.

It is also easy to grasp how you could set numerous dials for your series bible from detailing a lot, even down to the cast so it is just awaiting writers, to actually starting with the most basic of pitches and having characters, initial places, etc, all built from that discussion. You could even make the establishing of Places part of character creation. The Primetime Adventures model is useful in this regard. You could even play with the Narrator / Player boundary by having players suggest what the next scene should be and some of the cards in it?

As for the Storium business model? Well, it’s early days and there certainly isn’t anything on pricing. The two things that can be taken from the Kickstarter at the moment is: an annual subscription and paying for content. The annual subscription will be interesting depending on cost, the line that will have to be walked is to what degree the structural elements needs Storium to actually work? And to what degree the community adds value?

The second form of revenue is the pre-built worlds. The model is presented as a merger between the ‘RPG module’ and ‘apps’ models. People write worlds, people pay an app-style amount for worlds with money flowing to Storium and the author. No problem with this in principle. It’ll be interesting to see how well when combined with the community the site fosters? Will people be buying worlds or creating their own? No idea at this stage.

Will that model work out to make it a viable effort for all concerned? It’ll be interesting to find out if it is.

Well, this is sort of the outcome of my initial, half an hour peak inside after pledging on the Kickstarter, no doubt more in the future.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 11/04/2014 Bookmark and Share
13th Age 1.1: Everything is New
Keywords: Actual Play; Role-Playing Games; 13th Age Arabian Campaign; 13th Age.

We had the first full session of the 13th Age campaign last weekend. It was great fun. It had some encounters, some revelations about the ancient, pre-history of the settings, including the revealing of The Ancient, the Icon that was left unexplained during the pre-game discussions. We also had some flashbacks and flashforwards.

I really liked the flashbacks as each one of them worked and added a lot of new stuff to the game. As players we learned that one of the characters seemed to be some sort of soulless immortal? The origin of another’s curse related to his one unique thing. The first appearance and associated locations of two major icons. It was all good stuff.

I liked the flashbacks, but then the use of flashbacks and flashforwards to flesh out characters was the main reason I loved the TV show Lost. I could see it working out well for my character, the one in this session being a perfect example, they sort of build-up of vignettes of how the character got to be where she is. There is a bit of a story there worth telling, especially since it’s all not all pre-written so it informs you as a player as well as anyone else, thus informing the character in the present? It establishes stuff. It’s better than it just being in my head or a few paragraphs on a sheet of paper. Nice.

We had two encounters. They felt a bit off, but I suspect this was because it was new and the fine tuning didn’t feel exactly right. Using the characters in their most awesome way is also something that needs a bit of work. The first one was over in a blink. The second one was more challenging, with one of the enemies having an annoying ability that rivals the 4E on fire status (damage on being engaged and disengaging, a sort of Rogue personal hell). The encounters aren’t Fate but neither are they 4E so after these initial two encounters I think I have a take on how to get the most awesome out of the experience. I wasn’t overly convinced I added much to either, especially the first, but this is an experience things across the table (along with the luck of the dice).

The other interesting wrinkle is how fast fights are. I suspect most fights are not going to last much longer than the escalation die. Six rounds. This is probably the point. This means even a long fight isn’t essentially that long. This is a good in a way, it means you’re best getting your awesome in early and not holding back, otherwise you might miss your chance. Go in. Hit hard. Hit fast. You may well only have 4-8 rounds to do it in? This also is another reason why the Shadow Walk Rogue talent only sounds cool, being out of the combat for every 1 round in 2 isn’t that great if the combat length is on the shorter side.

The two combat encounters provided the first experience of the characters intersecting with the rules (above and beyond skill rolls). It’s going to take a while to shake out how each of the characters plays I think. I already have a few observations about the Rogue though.

Momentum is a cool mechanic, it is fun that you attain it and loose it. Hopefully this will get even more fun as my character gets more levels and powers. At the moment it’s pretty much about a single interrupt power and kicking in Swashbuckle. Swashbuckle is an interesting one, to the extent I’ve discussed it in another post.

The other observation is the Rogue is one shifty bastard. I played the Ranger in the 4E Campaign and I thought he moved around a lot, but the Rogue is ridiculous. Tumbling Strike essentially allows you two moves (especially if combined with the Tumbling class talent as you’ll never fail to disengage). So, you’re essentially moving from anywhere ‘nearby’, attacking and moving to another location anywhere ‘nearby’. That in itself is frickin’ awesome. Get cornered? Then you use Evasive Strike to hit and pop free of being engaged and then move. If after all this I am cornered and I am hit I use an interrupt to lower the damage. Shifty with a capital ‘S’ and that’s with only the abilities available in the adventurer tier.

It’s a lot of fun and I’m glad I went with the class. It fits the character ridiculously well, there is zero class to premise disconnect, and it’s tremendously fun to play.

The final observation, which is more one for me than anything else, is I do tend find games that use scenes as a unit of structure feel a bit more engaging. When the session is the adventure and solving stuff and the heroes doing their thing it’s great but the interactions feel less ‘involved’. The other observation was describe, describe and then describe some more. Okay, that’s a bit ridiculous, but the point is the game is essentially a visual medium I think without any visuals. I think I missed lots of opportunities to add to the fabric by describing and framing more. A part of this might have been to do with the almost scene-less structure, as this didn’t feel like it was the case with the flashback.

It’s weird, because as a GM I frame and describe quite a bit…why do you stop as a player? Weird.

Permalink | Comments(2) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 27/03/2014 Bookmark and Share
Swashbuckling in the 13th Age!
Keywords: Actual Play; Role-Playing Games; 13th Age Arabian Campaign; 13th Age.

There are two blog posts coming out of the first session of the Arabian 13th Age campaign, this was supposed to be the second one, but since I’m being hassled for them, and this one doesn’t involve a bit of image editing, it has hit the web first.

One of the more difficult decisions for those playing Rogues in 13th Age is choosing class talents. They are all pretty, damned good except for Shadow Walk, which seems a bit lame considering the speed of 13th Age fights. It doesn’t help that the abilities are quite varied as well.

The big debate for me was whether to take Swashbuckle. I liked the sound of it but it fell into a fiddly sweet spot due to the rules and the general conventions at the table. In terms of the rules, Swashbuckle is one of the vague ones, or at least it seems to be at first, but I suspect it’s a bit clearer if you accept a certain intent that might not be communicated in the best way. The other problem was we tend to have a cinematic table anyway, so a talent that seems to give you permission to be cinematic seems a bit superfluous.

Having had a single session now, so Swashbuckle has hit the table, the odd Twitter discussion, and a bit of time figuring out improvisational effects I think I have a perspective on the designers' intent. It’s my take anyway. As I say though, there is enough vagueness in the whole thing for it to be a bit frustrating.

The key seems to be it empowers the player to make up improvisational effects, but I’ll get back to that. Which seem to be an idea lacking just a bit of clarity or pulling together of ideas spread throughout the book.

First, it is a class talent, so it needs to stack up in terms of utility with class talents such as improved sneak attack, which turns out significant damage, especially in the champion tier. Not only that, improved sneak attack works all the time, on every attack if the simple engaged criteria apply. It’s ridiculously good. Swashbuckle costs momentum to use and you can’t even spend your momentum freely to do it on demand as it’s essentially a per encounter power. On this basis it needs to deliver when it kicks in as it has a high opportunity cost and has medium rationing (albeit it’s got great action economy). Whatever you do with Swashbuckle it’s only happening once per encounter and at the cost of the few times the Rogue may have momentum!

Now back to improvisational effects.

It seems the sweet spot 13th Age is trying to hit between offering structure while remaining narratively flexible can sometimes leave it all a bit vague between the two, but examples do seem to be woven throughout the book.

The use of improvisational effects suggests it is perfectly acceptable to cause a ‘rule’ effect of some kind. This seems to be a strange mixture of an actual, recognisable rules effect (such as dazing a target) or something akin to applying an aspect (sword stuck in tree) without the actual rule representation. It’s not just about doing something cinematically cool in a descriptive sense, such as wall running across a chasm. The cool example in the book involves administering a status effect of dazed by cutting open bags of flower. In a similar way, spread across the book, improvisational effects with suitable narrative permissions include slowing characters down, status effects and environmental damage, restricting enemy actions, etc. It seems delivering status effects and impromptu environmental delivered damage (there is even a table for this to control it per tier) are the order of the day.

The other way I’m finding I am looking at it is it’s a bit like an improvisational spell per encounter, but the permission isn't a spell but narrative circumstance and description.

On this basis it’s going to be interesting and fun to use in play. It does allow you to do something awesome and flexible once per encounter. When looked at in this way it does seem to have a level of utility when compared to other talents, especially since you make no roll to succeed at the improvisational effect (making the rationing and use of momentum more understandable) and you can throw in the general visual awesome of epic parkour, aerial gymnastics and balancing stuff (or using my air djinn heritage as a the narrative permission, etc).

Permalink | Comments(2) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 25/03/2014 Bookmark and Share
Great 13th Age of Arabia Campaign
Keywords: Actual Play; Role-Playing Games; 13th Age Arabian Campaign; 13th Age.

It’s true to say I’ve been in a gaming funk due to a combination of factors. I’ve not felt fully engaged with a campaign as a player since the Promethean Institute campaign ended back August 2012. I was enjoying running Fate Fading Suns but that got cancelled back in May 2013. The games after that have been interesting and fun, but in a casual sort of way. It also didn’t help I’m not the biggest fan of either the Dungeon World or Shadowrun systems.

I’d begun to think I was entering some sort of permanent gaming twilight.

I still think there is something in the gaming twilight thing, or a new model I’ve not discovered yet, but at least one thing has been resolved: I’m really looking forward to and fully engaged in playing again! We’ve recently started our 13th Age Arabian campaign, for want of a better name at this point, and I’m really excited about it.

There are a number of reasons for this, I think.

I really like the system we’re using. 13th Age is very clever. The beauty of 13th Age is it seems to provide the positives of 3E (player options and universal systems) and 4E (balance and fun to play) while ditching the negatives, adding some great narrative elements and keeping it slick and lighter in weight.

I could write a whole post on what I like but it basically comes down to the right level of complexity against cool and just the right sprinkle of narrative flexibility without turning into a set of vacuous rules that don’t really add anything to the game (it is a game, so you want the rules to add something). It’s a mixture of things like the One Unique Thing, Backgrounds as flavoursome skills (a bit like elements of Fate, Primetime Adventures, Over the Edge, etc) as well how the classes, feats and abilities work which manage to be interesting and exciting without weighting the game down in rules or procrastination at the table.

It’s a very fresh and clever approach to things.

As for the campaign itself, we’ve done some discussion on the forums, had a group character creation session and played a sort of mini, session 0.5 last week. It’s all working out great. The setting is fleshed out enough to provide enough shared framing to move forward but, in truth, most of it is a blank slate other than what’s required to be ‘just in front’ of the characters or what they’ve defined behind them in their punchy, full of potential capsules. It’s evocative, different and mysterious and exciting which is all great as I really didn’t want to play another class-based, potentially too close to generic fantasy game again (and this doesn’t feel like that at all).

The main reason comes down to being engaged with my character’s story potential, which has probably been the main missing element and contributed significantly to the gaming twilight feel from the playing perspective. In both the post-Fate Fading Suns games I had a character, but I never felt the game was wrapped around their story potential. It’s a weird experience and has multiple facets but it felt like skimming the surface rather than the main point of playing. The focus of play was…elsewhere. The result of this was it became more of a casual experience rather than one I was fully engaged with.

I love my 13th Age character. I like the functional stuff like the class abilities I’ve got to play with and how they’ll expand as I level. I am fully engaged with the visuals of the character and the relationships that surround her (and interesting ones with the other player characters are already developing, I think). Finally, I love the whole set-up of what her story is about. I don’t know what shape it will take. I don’t know how it will end, but I do know what the intent is and it’s fantastic. The future story of Aryal, exiled exalted Princess, scion of the Great Djinn (half air Djinn) and protégé of the Old Man of the Mountain (think a Ra’s al Ghul sort of figure mixed in with the historical middle eastern assassins) as a sort of princess, spy, thief and swashbuckling vagabond is awesome, multi-layered and how she will decide the fate of the Exalted Sultan of the Empire (her one unique thing she is prophesised to do, though I don’t think that prophecy has been spoken or discovered yet) is one I want to see out.

Exciting times. I am really looking forward to the next session. I have to say, it has felt like a long time since I’ve been this engaged as a player…and the feeling is good.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 16/02/2014 Bookmark and Share
Almost Human, Almost Great
Keywords: TV.

Almost Human was a show I wasn’t aware of at all. I had no idea it was in development. The first I heard of it was when people started commenting on the pilot episode on Twitter. A near future cop show in the mould of late eighties and early nineties fair like Robocop and Total Recall? The cop show crucible in a world where technology has gone out of control? Throw in the almost human android as a partner and it sounded like a great concept.

I’ve been binging on it lately, watching all eight episodes that have been aired, and it’s a show that is almost great.

Karl Urban, as the troubled Detective Kennex, and Michael Ealy, as the almost human android, are nothing short of brilliant. As far as casting goes the show has pulled a complete blinder. They work really well together as a partnership. The ‘cop buddy show’ element works really well. Karl Urban manages to be the curmudgeon cop while still being amazingly likeable. Michael Ealy does a great job of actually being the more empathic character despite being the android, which is a dynamic they should play up more as it is core to the series. If the characters have any faults it’s in the writing as their issues and the themes that surround them just aren’t pushed aggressively enough. We’ll come back to that.

The show looks fantastic. Like any TV show they have to economise over the course of the season and they do this by keeping things very near future. At times the setting isn’t that different in terms of the streets and buildings. They just do enough to maintain a compelling illusion. The technology interactions are great. The use of fancy screens and holographic displays work really well. The virtual crime scene tape works every time they use it. The crimes and the new technology behind them also work (over time it’ll throw in a lot of the concepts often given over to whole films). The vehicles are given enough cosmetic dressing (their police evokes Robocop). It feels near future. It feels like films it gets its influence from but with technology that doesn’t feel anachronistic. It feels authentic, which is a great achievement. The shows production across the board is very well delivered.

At the moment the show is falling into a crime of the week structure. There is zero on-going story. No heavy serialisation. This is quite refreshing due to the heavily serialised nature of quality TV these days. I have no problem with episodic shows as they have numerous advantages as they can explore different types of stories, deliver great, self-contained narratives and mix up mood and style occasionally. In truth, Almost Human doesn’t do this, it has a very set delivery like many cop shows we’ve seen over time. The episodes have mostly been focused on technology crimes: androids for sex, clones, designer drugs, blackmail through the Internet of Things, etc. They work well, but they need to introduce some serial elements in terms of consequences. We’ll come back to that.

Despite all the great individual elements you are left with a feeling Almost Human is satisfied with being reliable, good and almost great instead of being fantastic. It feels like it is coasting. Very good coasting, but coasting nonetheless.

The show fails to push the issues of the characters and the themes of the show aggressively enough. They are present, but they are very lightweight. Themes come up in the crime of the week but not really in a way that really matters. This isn’t good enough. Why isn’t the show exploring the issue of being ‘almost human’ more deeply and with bigger fall out? The grey areas around this concept explored through the personalities of Kennex and Dorian. Neither does it push the relationship between Kennex and Dorian especially in the area of how everyone else sees Dorian? Why isn’t the fact that Kennex himself part ‘android’ explored more? What about background issue of Kennex and how this could fit into the ‘almost human’ question? In short, the characters need to stop coasting from interesting case to case and start having to face hard questions, consequences and issues based on their choices and the theme of the show.

Until the show does this it will continually sit on the edge of greatness, failing to deliver something bigger than the sum of its awesome parts. I hope it kicks these areas into gear. If it does, Almost Human could be a veritable classic.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 26/01/2014 Bookmark and Share
Small Town USA Western
Keywords: TV.

It was probably to be expected that someone would eventually realise that a Jack Reacher TV series might be a good idea. A badass with issues walks into town and rights wrongs often through being capable of extreme voilence with his own sense of justice. You’d have to tweak the format a bit to allow the main protagonist to stay in the town, with all its Western genre sensibilities, but it provides a good model.

Okay, so Banshee isn’t really a Jack Reacher TV series exactly, but it’s the closest we have to it.

The premise is simple. Lucas Hood and the love of his life, Anastasia, perform a jewel theft for a violent, Ukranian gangster called Rabbit, Anastasia’s father. It goes wrong, Lucas gets captured to ensure Anastasia escapes and spends fifteen years in prison. That’s the past. The crucible of the series is Lucas masquerading as someone else, the new sheriff of Banshee, allowing him to right those wrongs in the eponymous ‘small town’, because that is where Anastasia has her new life. Queue lots of Western influenced stories, violence, sex and corruption while Lucas and Anastasia’s relationship is dealt with alongside flashbacks to the past and Rabbit seeks revenge.

Like the Jack Reacher novels, Antony Starr as Lucas Hood manages to generate the right level of empathy, destructive violence and sex appeal to work for both the male and female audience. He is a stronger character than Jack Reacher, his love for Anastasia really works and the way they layer his past into the present, especially his time in prison, is really well done (you really feel the tension and violence of those fifteen years). In a similar way, other key characters really work. Kai Proctor, the evil man who ‘owns the town’, manages to be much more complex than his counterparts and the development of his niece, the Amish girl by day but party girl by night, is very well done (and, I’ll admit it, her sex scenes are a draw). The web of relationships is great.

The violence of the show is…extraordinary for TV. Normally this would not be appealing as it is quite brutal, making you wince at times. It works because it’s woven through the fabric of the show giving it a level of foreboding and righteous vengeance. When someone is in danger it unsettles you. When it looks like violence might erupt on an innocent party you worry. In turn, when Lucas Hood decides to act you feel a sense of visceral reward.

The series feels dangerous and this mildly unsettling feel really works.

There are a surprising amount of sex scenes. I suspect there is a rule that there must always be one. They are surprising revealing for a US TV. Okay, they’re not really any different to the ones in Game of Thrones, but that shows slowly backed away from them, they’ve consistently been a part of Banshee. I’ll admit it, they’re great. Nothing wrong with a bit of titillation and I suspect they work for both sexes. They also served a purpose. When Lucas and Anastasia finally slept together again at the end of season one it felt, extraordinarily romantic, because of the different way it was filmed to all the other sex scenes in the series.

The mixture of danger arrives in town, small town corruption, Lucas’s past and current masquerade and the relationships between the inhabitants, combined with the action heroes living amongst normal folk sort of shtick (Lucas and Anastasia are action hero capable), along with the violence and the sex it is an intoxicating mix. The first series has been brilliant, culminating in a great, violent conclusion not that far away from some Hollywood films – including a house wrecking fifteen minute fight between Anastasia and an ex-friend from the Ukranian gang.

It’s well worth watching. It’s a very slick show. If you like the 'Jack Reacher style fiction' that is hitting the book shelves these days then Banshee is probably the TV show for you.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 25/01/2014 Bookmark and Share
Gumshoe Spy Thrillers
Keywords: Role-Playing Games.

I got two things over Christmas (other than spending the holiday sunning myself in Fuertaventura): 13th Age and Night’s Black Agents. These games are what you would call my first serious ‘post-Fate love’ purchase. I still adore Fate, but finding other systems that might appeal to me is always good, and I’m still not convinced half the group like Fate for anything but convention length games (if at all) anyway.

I’ve been absorbing both, but today we’re discussing Night’s Black Agents.

Night’s Black Agents is one of those games I should have probably had on my ‘to get’ list when it was released over a year ago. If you discount volumes of internet discussion one of the game designers who has influenced my approach to gaming so much is Robin D Laws (mostly through Fengshui, the game full of running games like action films, and Over the Edge, the game a 1001 early Indie games span off from). Throw in a system designed to run cinematic spy thrillers well, a favourite genre of mine, designed by Laws, and what’s possibly not to love?

Night’s Black Agents is one of those games that passes the first test: it makes you want to play it…now. It’s not so much the atmosphere of setting and place, but more the love, knowledge and understanding of cinematic thrillers of various types. This is suffused through the character and skills section to the point you want to make all sorts of exciting characters that you know will be modelled well as tough, resourceful, clever and deadly cinematic protagonists. The system also manages to convince you the hacker will be as awesome as the archaeologist who will be given a run for his money by the CIA analyst while still allowing the gun-toting assassin to do his stuff.

The core strength of the system comes from how it handles skills: it models skills like they are used in cinematic thrillers. The gathering of information (Investigative skills) are separated from normal, general skills (those handy at the sharp end). This models the structure of thrillers in that the information gathering acts as a connecting mechanism (the how to get there skills) to rising conflict and action (the skills used in the cinematic action). The protagonists join the connections in cool and slick ways, never really standing around stumped. That’s the theory.

This is why investigative skills always succeed.

While not getting into the detail of this, it basically means the system models what any half-decent GM knows already: you never want the players to fail to find the clues. As a result, you move clues to different people and places to make sure they are found. The Gumshoe system supports this by allowing the experts in their field to always find the connecting clues, one could even say the clues are defined by the skills the players’ choose to use (though this isn’t explicit). These skills, along with neat stuff like Cover, Network and Preparedness (allowing protagonists to conjure up identities, individuals and prepared stuff on the fly) adds ‘game structure’ to how any GM, who doesn’t want his game to descend into frustration and confusion, knows his game has to operate anyway.

General skills operate in a more typical way. You roll a dice and add skill points and see if you get over a set difficulty. The wrinkle is the skill points are not your skill level but points allocated from your kill level as a pool. This means you can effectively run out, meaning you roll a basic die. The protagonists key skills, the highest ones, have ways to refresh it would seem. The highest ones also have cherries, effectively cool Fengshui-style shticks that further elevates their awesome.

At the moment, I have two visions of Gumshoe. In the book it all sounds natural and perfect. In reality, when we played it through Trail of Cthulhu, it didn’t feel as fluid as the text probably suggested in the Trail book. There was the ‘do I need to spend an investigation point here’ moments and ‘is there another clue to find’ pauses. This would cause the GM to break the fourth wall repeatedly to say we’d milked the scene dry. In a strange way, I felt this sort of defeated the point? As for general skills, it’s all too easy to become concerned about whether you should spend them now or later!

Still, I think there is some learning with respect to executing the system effectively and I think that learning sits in a few areas: where are the clues and are they active or passive? In the Trail of Cthulhu game where the clues sat was with the GM and they all seemed to be active (they required a point spend to find). To keep the game running smoothly and for the scenes of rising conflict and action to flow I suspect ‘where’ the clues are has to be, if not completely, to some degree defined by where the protagonists look? The distribution of passive and active clues may also have to be more varied and dynamic to events. It may also ease the ‘prep burden’ as you move to the principles of what could connect the scenes rather than being very specific at the design point.

There is all sorts of other good looking stuff in Night’s Black Agents that I’ve not fully got to yet. The combat system (which could make or break it). The design of the vampires. The conspiracy design tools that need to be in the toolbox of any GM (along with the advice on clues and information driving stories). Thrilling chases and combats. Then you have info on spy agencies and European cities. It’s a dense, but very interesting book.

The true genius of Night’s Black Agents is, though it wraps things up in the premise of ‘the vampire spy thriller’ to provide focus, give the game an immediate purpose and a tagline or sound bite, the game is much more than that.

In the first instance, what counts as a ‘vampire’ is quite broad within the definition of the book. In the second, it already includes other ‘monsters’ making it more of a supernatural spy thriller (despite the vampires possibly being aliens, a sentient virus or whatever). In the third, it would work just as well with the Cthulhu Mythos. Finally, the spread of skills and how they work means the ‘spy thriller’ could actually just be a cinematic thriller consisting of no one who is actually a spy, but instead archaeologists, scientists and mercenaries of action investigating a global conspiracy. Hell, the game even supports people getting all CSI, though a campaign purely based on that would be a stretch.

In short, what you are getting is a great system for any game that falls into the narrative rhythm of thrillers featuring Homo Fictus, competent characters whether this is something like a Dan Brown novel, or something Tomb Raider-esque.

This is a great prospect.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 03/01/2014 Bookmark and Share
Bullets, Money & FPS Disorientation
Keywords: Video Games.

A number of weeks back I came across Borderlands 2 for £12 in in ASDA. Spontaneous purchase. I figure you can’t go too far wrong for that much even if you just play it sporadically? The same weekend I put it into the PlayStation, tried to play it and promptly stopped due to sensory overload and serious FPS disorientation. It just did my head in. I figured, put the game away, and come back to it later when I’m possibly in the right frame of mind for it.

I came back to it yesterday and it’s starting to flow.

Wind back a bit. The first problem was class and levelling strategy. I was going to play solo so it was important to pick the right class. It seems this game isn’t as solo friendly as the first one according to some, but there is nothing I can do about that now. I went for the Commando on the basis it got the most votes as a solo friendly class. It has the disadvantage of being the equivalent to the class I played in the original Borderlands. It then took a while to pull a build off the web so I could spend my experience points without creating some sort of broken character of extreme ineptitude. This took a few hours or so.

I’ve not played an FPS for some considerable time so there was some acclimatisation that needed to occur. It may actually go back to when I stopped playing the original Borderlands. Since then, the closest I’ve come is third-person action games (Uncharted, Tomb Raider, and Splinter Cell) which aren’t remotely the same. I also tend to prefer the third person perspective, cover mechanics, etc. Borderlands 2 initially felt cramped with everything being too close, quick to get on top of you and lateral and vertical movements way to confusing and fast. I’ve took my usual way to resolving this: going slow and managing my battle space so I’m not moving around too quickly. Use distance. Channel the enemy along controlled routes. Pull selectively where possible, though that’s of limited use in Borderlands.

I’ve reached the end of quest chain involving Claptrap and I’m now at my first major boss: Captain Flint. I detest bosses. It was always the same in World of Warcraft, I always seemed to be the only one who liked the strangely therapeutic experience of cutting through the trash and seeing the new environments to get to the boss. The big, set piece boss battles tended to leave me cold after that and I always just wanted to get through them as quickly as possible. I’ve tried to take him out a few times but I seem to be causing a ridiculously low amount of damage with each hit and each time I try means I lose money buying more ammo.

Early days, but at this rate I’d run out of cash before killing him!

This brings me to the main problem at the moment: money and ammunition. It’s quite easy to run out of ammo and then you have to buy more. This is a combination of what I can carry, the guns I have and my crap aiming. This is hampered by the fact that if you decide to quit for a bit and save the game it seems the enemies come back but your ammo remains the same. The enemies reset after save but your ammo is persistent. This means you have to spend money to kill what you’ve already progressed through. I’ve not ran out of both yet, making it impossible to progress, but I am living on the breadline all the time and accumulating very few resources. The odd thing that does come up that looks like a good purchase, such as a better shield, is invariably too expensive.

This feels different to the original Borderlands which always seemed to keep the ammo situation pretty smooth in terms of always dropping enough and off the right type to keep resources and killing efficiency acceptable. I felt I had to find an ammo dispenser much less frequently in the original game, surviving just off ammo drops. This version drops ammo, but it always seems to be ammo I have at full (shotgun ammo for instance) due to me not using that type of gun.

Still, I’m in. I am playing. I am enjoying it. A bit like Diablo III it’s a game you just casually drop into. It would be cool to play through it multiplayer with a team, more chaos, more enemies, more loot, but that will never happen.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 09/12/2013 Bookmark and Share
The Life Logging Thing
Keywords: Life; Technology.

A while back I read a couple of paragraphs somewhere on life logging and an app called Saga. Then I forgot completely about it. I’ve even forgot what directed me to the idea again, I’ve downloaded the Saga Android App and began an experiment in life logging.

It’s probably worth getting something straight first: I realise this is a bit strange and my life is nowhere near exciting enough to make it worth logging all the time. I do like playing around with Apps occasionally, especially ones that take advantage of the various technologies on your mobile phone. I’ve been experimenting with Saga since last Sunday.

But, what is its thing?

Saga uses the GPS in your phone and connections to other Apps to create a life log. Sounds exciting, but it’s potentially more mundane, especially since you’re probably already giving a narrative to these things through Facebook and Twitter anyway. It does its best to log when you’re travelling and the places you visit. It then learns about you, which hopefully makes the logging more accurate, and starts to record stats and tag you with traits. As an example, it needs to recognise your home and place of work relatively early on due to most of us spending the majority of our time in either of these locations.

You can connect Saga to other Apps, and I suspect the success of the App will be these connections. At the moment I’ve got it linked to Facebook and Twitter so it can merge updates to these Apps into the recorded timeline. Goodreads so it can pull in my updates on the books I have read. I’ve also integrated Pinterest, but I’ve not used this much. There is a range of other Apps you can integrate with it from Foursquare, through various fitness Apps to to link in the music you are scrobbling. I suspect the more data the better.

It’s been a strange process so far, as it’s been both very accurate and inaccurate. Saga seems to log travel times really well. It accurately logs car journeys and walks to and from the office to the supermarket, etc. It has a harder time with places. It suggests you can just ignore it and it logs up a picture of your life but it doesn’t really do this unless you effectively check-in. At least it doesn’t do it yet. As an example, I walked to the supermarket and back to the office and it recorded it all as travel time. It will log the time at the supermarket if I check-in. It doesn’t seem to then automatically recognise that place again. Once it knows a place it will accurately identify it as your now location, but so far it’s done this through me pulling up the App. I need to experiment by leaving it just logging without interacting for ages across multiple known locations to see how well it does.

The weirdest thing about the Saga is it can log things completely correctly but a day or so later it changes it to be incorrect! It’ll get a journey correct and a period of time at a place and then 24 or so hours later the stay at the place will have shrunk and the hours consumed by the journey will have radically increased. This is a bit annoying as you then you have to make it correct guessing some of the timings it had gotten correct first time. This sort of defeats the point of the App. I have no idea why it does this. It must being reviewing the data and making different decisions.

It’s early days in terms of traits and statistic, but I am interesting in seeing what it comes up with for these things. I am assuming I’ll get a full set of stats once I’ve used it for a week. I’m specifically interested in what traits it’s going to be able to divine on what is a relatively mundane and normal life in GPS terms.

The biggest conundrum with Saga is it seems it’s exactly when your life is potentially at its most mundane that you are likely to use it. If you go gallivanting abroad to all sorts of wonderful and exciting places you have to jump through hoops to keep your mobile data, for instance. Also, Saga can only be used in a very limited set of countries: Australia, Canada, Denmark, Netherlands, Sweden, United Kingdom and the United States. I’m guessing the EU, by and large, is being an epic fun sponge due to privacy laws. It seems you’ll have a gap in your life log just as things had got interesting.

The other wrinkle is Saga shifts the dynamic a bit in relation to other platforms like Facebook and Twitter. There is a certain element of narrative going on with these platforms. It’s not that you lie, but you do tend to frame and contextualise. Saga doesn’t really do this it’s more focused on facts. Often quite mundane facts. As an example, I did three 11-hour work days last week? I know that happens but it was still a bit of an eyebrow raiser to see as a fact on the screen.

I’m still finding the experiment interesting enough to continue. I’m not entirely sure it’s something I’ll keep going with long-term as after a month of it I’m pretty sure it will just be recording similar stats every week and a horrible, depressing similar sequence of events. Apparently, people life log to get all ‘big data’ on their lives to discover patterns of behaviour so they can change them. Improve their life. Eat more vegetables. Spend more time with the family. Read more books. I’m not convinced I need some form of empirical data to make me aware of some of these facts (assuming Saga would even reveal some of them).

I understand you can download your data and crunch it with serious software. I guess some people take it very seriously.

Permalink | Comments(4) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 30/11/2013 Bookmark and Share
Catching Fire…Caught Fire!
Keywords: Film; Film Review.

Catching Fire is a difficult book as it is, in many ways, a structural repeat of the first book. This is magnified by the fact that the novels are written in first person so we only get to experience what Katniss directly experiences. If you compound this with the fact it’s purely a bridging story, representing a 100% middle section, it’s safe to say it was a risky proposition.

Despite all this it was absolutely brilliant.

The film is surprisingly brutal, tense and traumatic. Yes, it doesn’t actually show much. There is very little blood. A lot happens just off camera. This doesn’t seem to matter. You feel the oppression of the regime. You feel the weight of the claustrophobic corner Katniss is being pushed into by powers greater than herself. You actually feel manipulated. It’s very well done and shows perfectly that showing the blood and guts of such stories isn’t necessary for the oppression and lack of justice to be fully felt. The way the film is filmed, edited and acted gets a lot of credit here.

Indeed, it was only about fifteen minutes in and I was already getting quite emotional over it all.

Like The Hunger Games film I think Catching Fire is better than the book largely because it drops the first person narrative. This means you are free of the extended internal monologues of the protagonist. You have to show not tell and showing is often quicker and less laboured. You get the larger fabric of the setting and its players explored, specifically stuff with President Snow. They also did some really interesting stuff with her sister. While she’s not in many scenes she is very good in them and cements the fact that her sister is becoming a sort of heroic figure in herself for different reasons and becoming loved by the populace. I don’t remember this but it makes a great bridge to key events in the third book that might be done a lot better in the final films.

Surprisingly, even the elements of repetition didn’t feel like a well-trodden road. I think this was because things changed just enough. The setting is realised beautifully, this is something they seem to have improved on in Catching Fire. The build of the districts rebelling is done well. Even the slow, turn of the people in the capital works out well noticed in crowd reactions. Then you have characters changing, representing that shift on a micro-scale, such as changes in Effie Trinket regarding events. As for events in the Hunger Game itself, they’re actually more interesting in this film in terms of the action and the pacing.

It’s possibly the passage of time that has dulled my memory but in the film the anger experienced by the betrayal of the victors of previous Hunger Games seemed to come across better and stronger. It felt like the film better portrayed the fact that it was this very decision that was the beginning of Snow’s undoing and the heroism of some of the Victors to uphold the heroic image of Katniss and keep her alive was better executed. You felt their sacrifice in the face of the greater good against the true enemy.

The final scenes are interesting in that I hope they are significant for the final two films. It’s suffice to say I have problems with the third book (and to a less extend the second which didn’t feel as big an issue in the film). I felt that, by the third book, Katniss should have stopped being the reluctant and accidental hero. Regrettably, this isn’t the case she still remains one during almost the whole third book. While it’s not as bad as this, it would be a bit like the Captain America film having the hero as the token figure head doing the song and dance routines until way too far into them film along with the lack of respect, manipulation of the hero and him not stepping up that would entailed.

The transformation that plays out on our protagonists face, from sadness to anger, very well done by Lawrence, in the final moments of the film, hopefully tells us that while being politically manipulated is fine, Katniss in the final films is going to be a more willing hero with an active mission in the remaining two films. One can only hope as I think the ‘victim of circumstance and bigger powers’ thing, if played out too much, my get a bit tired in the third and fourth film as it did in the book. It doesn’t have to be a big change, it’s just a shift of attitude and language with respect to the main protagonist.

Bring on the final two films, hopefully not too far apart.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 24/11/2013 Bookmark and Share
Holy Old School Crunch!
Keywords: Role-Playing Games.

There are numerous things that where acceptable in the 80’s: mullets, stone washed jeans, mad perms, wearing odd-coloured fluorescent socks, loafers, skinny trousers a tad too short and numerous other fashion mistakes. In terms of RPGs, what was also acceptable in the 80’s, was ridiculous, epic crunch often with different, widely varied subsystems of perplexing crunch which inter-related in ways only the half mad could fully fathom.

I’ve played such systems in my time, most notably Middle Earth Role-Playing, which was tantamount to playing Rolemaster, and that can only need to madness and lots of tables. I’ve not run such a game, or if I have I’ve wiped it from my mind. The closest I might have come is a few sessions of Warhammer Fantay Roleplay here and there. I did play Golden Heroes a lot, which wasn’t that complicated, but it did involve division to work out damage. What were they thinking?

The next game to be played by the role-playing group in the eponymous Sunday slot is: Shadowrun 5th edition. I created my character during Cottage Con 2013, well, one might say less ‘created’ and more assigned a load of stuff in as little a random way as I could muster across a multi-stage process that seemed to take hours and that was with me not putting too much effort into equipment. It was an endurance event. It’s safe to say the game feels so old school it was giving me flashbacks.

Having come back at the character a few times since I can describe the process only as irritating, annoying, time consuming and just something I begrudged the time I’ve spent on it (and that’s with numerous people helping me out and actually doing the hard bit). It doesn’t help that I don’t have the time for these sort endeavours anymore, but the setup is also painful. It’s just so involved due to presenting too many interacting choices to get to a complex way of describing what you’re character can do. It doesn’t even tough or mechanically represent who the character is, beyond some old school disadvantages (which are easier to max out for some character types than others unless you want to find yourself running away from prawns, e.g an allergy to sea food).

It’s my worst nightmare in that it is obviously a game that has a significant and on-going character build game. You can build your character in many different ways and it would seem to make quite a difference. A part of the game is improving, getting more widgets, getting more stuff, earning more money, assigning more equipment. To be honest: I don’t really care about that much.

Despite all this I’m really looking forward to Shadowrun. It’s the visuals that sell it.

Let’s face it I love contemporary settings, the potential for the modern world to be writ large in glorious Technicolor: glorious landscapes, epic buildings, etc. While Shadowrun is set in the future the art paints fascinating cityscapes of skyscrapers, neon and futuristic vehicles. It looks fantastic. It’s also packed with awesome. Ancient, methuselah dragons ruling corporations. A plethora of characters in all sorts of action scenes oozing cool. I’ve not spent much time with the book, just glancing through it, and it paints a picture that inspires you to play it.

Let’s face it, it rolls together near future cool, elements of cinematic espionage, the clash of races, magic and technology. It actually folds in a lot of the modern, action film ‘stuff’ that I tend to love. So there is a lot to going for it.

Ultimately, the telling thing is, system aside, it immediately inspired me to frame a character in my mind. Admittedly, she’s largely a type, concept and set of visuals at this point but it was immediate. Ruby from the video game WET was the inspiration. For whatever reason this never happened with Dungeon World, the character remained a cipher, a playing piece. I had some idea, but it never seemed to solidify. I went straight for the jugular when Shadowrun became a possibility and sourced the image and started to throw concepts around in my head. This is the best sign of all I’m looking forward to it.

It begins in a week ‘Chummer’. I think that’s the lingo? Or it was, back in the 80’s.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 22/11/2013 Bookmark and Share
A Cottage And Some Games
Keywords: Role-Playing Games; Board Games; CottageCon.

Cottage Con. A simple idea. A group of friends get together to play games of various sorts in a remote, to varying degrees, cottage. It also involves lots of food. Initially this was the gaming group but has subsequently expanded to involve a wider group of friends. Surprisingly, I’ve lost track of how many Cottage Cons there have been. I went to the first two in May 2007 and the second in early March 2008, we really crammed them together back in the day, then that was it.

It worked out well though. Really enjoyed it.

Battle in the Skies

A week ago the latest one took place. A whole 5 – 6 years since the last one I went to, which is a bit mindboggling.

Cottage Con has changed over the years. Initially it involved less people and was almost completely dominated by role-playing games. Now it’s become more diverse both in terms of who attends and also the games that are played. It now covers board games, mini-gaming, war games and role-playing games. This is a good thing. Have to admit, going into it, I was a bit ‘meh’ about the whole thing. I’ve currently got a bit of a gaming twilight thing going on with respect to me and role-playing games and while I don’t mind board and some mini games I wasn’t sure I wanted to dedicate a weekend to them!

The location was fantastic, though it possibly was the remotest location we’ve used. Fantastically positioned, and near good roads, but it was only accessible by the equivalent of a mountain bike course that you were supposed to drive your car up. I went the wrong way and ended up at The Bog, essentially a farm that felt like some remote homestead off of some zombie apocalypse film complete with rabid barking dogs from inside mysterious barns. The road was ridiculous, especially when I had to backtrack along it. Still, I got their quite easily thanks to Google Maps. One car got lost and had to be rescued from a remote road and another had battery issues. It was perfect for a gaming weekend along with lovely views from on the top of a hill.

In terms of the games it was remarkably RPG lite, with only two on offer in the first place, and I opted for only one. The schedule was: Super Dungeon Explore, Star Wars: X-Wing, a narrative Confrontation scenario and 13th Age. Lest I not forget, creating a Shadowrun character, which felt like some sort of surreal game slot in itself.

Friday evening was Super Dungeon Explore. The game was probably tainted somewhat by being a bit tired (I started well, suffered in the middle and then seemed to burn through it) and my selection of a character that seemed to rely on other classes being present to interact with to bring the awesome. It’s still a great game though and would certainly play it again. It’s basically a dungeon-delving type of game that plays like a board game version of a Japanese CRPG. It’s quite clever. A combination of gear seemed to turn my Paladin into a strange fire goo flinging awesome bomb towards the final third.

The first game on Saturday was Star Wars: X-Wing. It’s one of those games that has what I call a high ‘theoretical investment rating’ (a number of others enter this category such as Descent and the D&D board games). It’s something that appeals, but actually buying into it would always remain theoretical due to outlay and probably, for various reasons, not actually getting around to playing it that much. It’s a good game though. The miniatures are great and it helped that I had an understanding of the units from familiarity with the WEG Star Wars RPG. I seemed to get the heavy fighter fleet which included a B-Wing and Y-Wing which can take quite a lot of punishment. It is one of those games that is simply complex. It’s simple to understand but is quite complex in play, specifically how you set the moves of your ships and how that interacts with the order the vessels actually move in. I also like how the pilots have a major influence on the abilities of the ships. It was a fun game which, after round after round of random movement, I actually won by running a Firespray-31 (Boba Fett’s ship) of the map with a battered Y-Wing. Exciting stuff.

We nearly didn’t play the second game on Saturday, a Confrontation narrative scenario, due to time catching up with us. We decided to go for it after and it was well worth it as it was easily the best experience of the whole weekend. The idea was simple: five players, each with a small number of units based around individual heroes and few henchmen all of them having different objectives to achieve. If I was to get into mini-gaming it is this sort of thing I like. I’m not interested in the vast armies, more the skirmish and / or hero-based games. It was exciting stuff. There should be more games intentionally designed like this.

13th Age. I really enjoyed it both in terms of the set-up, the characters and, the surprising bit, the system. The set-up was a variation on the novel Legend with a number of characters finding themselves at an ancient fortress, for various reasons, as the horde approached to overrun it and invade ‘The Empire’. It had the usual convention-game sort of feel, or at least the feel of the ones that tend to manifest at Cottage Con: a lot of people individually bringing the personal awesome. It was great fun though. The characters were really well envisioned and were some of the best pre-gens I’ve seen. You could get really into them very quickly.

The surprise was the system. Have to admit after 2.5 years of playing 4th Dungeons Dragons I wasn’t really in the frame of mind to play a class-based, D&D ‘variant’ in our Sunday sessions (this probably impacted Dungeon World as well, albeit that is a very different game). As it happens this is now Shadowrun, but I’d have been happy to play 13th Age after Cottage Con. It’s quite clever, throwing enough narrative stuff in to make it work. The system also works in ways that ensures it appeals to me. Its small things. Like the escalation die. The backgrounds and how they interact with the system. The way the fighters powers are applied after the roll making it a roll + awesome rather than always having to select from the infinity of them all. It seems to offer a great balance between fun, options and ease of play with some narrative juice. Great stuff.

In fact, the genius of 13th Age is it seems to be a D&D-style variant that I could run with. A sweet spot so to speak. Nice.

A great weekend. Roll on the next one.

Permalink | Comments(2) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 16/11/2013 Bookmark and Share
Diablo 3 Into Act 2
Keywords: Video Games.

I finished act one of Diablo 3 yesterday, which brings a welcome change of location. Still enjoying the game which has fallen into a regular cycle of play. I tend to drop into the odd online games for the quest I am currently on and enjoy the chaos of having multiple characters hacking their way through hordes of monsters. Trouble is you don’t necessarily get to start it from the beginning, listen to the ‘quest text’ or truly explore (as the other players might be doing it for the tenth time). As a result, I’ve always gone back and done a play through of each quest end-to-end solo to make sure I experience the minimal story present in each one.

The approach has resulted in me hitting a higher level at the first breakpoint. It’s suggested that you would normally be level 14 at the end of Act 1. I’ve hit 17. This is undoubtedly because I’ve done a number of the quests, if not completely twice, at least a percentage of any particular quest two or three times. It seems to be working out for me though.

I am starting to a bit more conscious of the gear I am wearing. I didn’t overly bother before. If the game told me it was an improvement I put it on. Now I check it a bit. This was primarily driven by the fact I was getting the impression my damage output wasn’t up to scratch. Not sure how it all hangs together yet, but I am going to start looking into what stats I should have (I’m assuming +dex at this point) and how much damage output my weapons have. How I get gear is a bit strange. I seem to get the best gear from merchants, not drops in the game. Not sure how long this will continue. I’m also selling all my gear for money and do nothing fancy with it. I assume there is a crafting system in the game somewhere? As of yet, I don’t believe any of my gear have sockets or anything similar.

The story brings me to the strangest thing about Diablo 3 and how the narrative presents itself. I’ve discussed how games take different approaches revealing their story: as consequence or reward. This basically establishes whether the story is revealed as a natural consequence of playing (such as in the Mass Effect series) or whether it is revealed as a reward for playing (such as in the Final Fantasy series). I prefer the former, as the latter tends to separate game and narrative too much.

Diablo 3 sits in a strange place in that it is firmly in the story as reward camp, but the story seems to have nothing to do with your character. As is typical in the story as reward format you play through the game and then periodically you’re rewarded with cut scenes that take the story forward. The story they take forward is the story of Leah, the niece of Deckard Cain, who seems to have some secret powers and gets to interact with fallen angels (who you also see making portentous decisions in their heavenly abode). Your character is a bit like an NPC, along with a whole range of other NPCs that can join you in your adventures the only difference being you get to directly control the actions of yours. This approach could be best summed up as someone else’s story as reward.

It doesn’t ruin the game, it’s an action RPG at the end of the day, but it’s a bit of an odd construct. Are all Blizzard games like this? I suspect so. If you look at World of Warcraft the story is largely one of world characters with every player sort of being one of a mass of NPCs? Then you have the real-time strategy games which have your battles taking place within the context of the dramas of another range of world characters? It just seems to be the way things are done.

It’s probably a testament to the strength of games like the Mass Effect series that this now just seems slightly odd, while I suspect, once upon a time, it was just the accepted norm. It also strikes me as being the video game equivalent to role-playing games in the 90’s in which the player characters could often be seen to be side players in a much larger drama featuring various ‘important world characters’ that got revealed through supplements for the line.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 03/11/2013 Bookmark and Share
The Fourth Echelon
Keywords: Video Games.

After slogging through The Last of Us for a third of the game before the good stuff kicked in it's refreshing to play through a game that just delivers from the start. Splinter Cell is a mature franchise and it knows what it needs to do: grand, melodramatic, high stakes cinematic espionage with super lethal spies that are masters of stealth.

Blacklist is a well-oiled machine. The single-player campaign kicks off almost in media res as The Engineers hit their first target on the Blacklist. The President assigns Fourth Echelon the task of tracking The Engineers down, they move into Paladin, their tricked out plane that acts as their operations centre, and the trail of arms dealers, analytics and signal intelligence has the team spanning the globe in their fight against the terrorist organisation. The structure of the game basically allows for intelligence of various sorts to hurtle the characters from one situation to another in a variety of locations.

You have a choice in terms of your style of play: Ghost, Panther or Assault. Ghost and Assault are opposites, consisting of not being seen and going in guns blazing. Panther represents the default Splinter Cell style of previous games involving the utilisation of stealth but not overly worrying about a clean exit by stealth killing when necessary. I tended to default to the Panther style but the missions occasionally throw up missions that require you to follow the other two (though this isn’t too brutal). The control system is fluid and natural and at all times makes you feel like the awesome action hero you are. It’s very clever.

Very exciting, very slick and it always makes you want to play more and punch on to the next mission-based situation.

In some form of minor miracle I even enjoyed the upgrade system. The system is based on acquiring cash which you get for doing the campaign missions, personal missions from your team (co-op ones for the most part) and probably partaking in Spies v Mercs (a great form of multiplayer if you have trusted people to play with). I liked it because it seemed to make the game cooler rather than pushing you into an impossible corner. I invested in all the stuff that made my Panther style more efficient, but the most useful seemed to be the two plane upgrades giving me a personal radar that indicated the facing of the enemy, etc. I never moved beyond the original guns given to me, though I did upgrade them a bit.

Blacklist does highlight one of the problems I have with modern game design. Blacklist takes a very modern approach to single, co-op and multiplayer by not putting them into silos. The rewards from one transfer to the other and they are all available from the same interface. It's all quite slick. The problem I have with it is the allocation of development resources. Only so much can be dedicated to the single-player campaign when there is two other areas to develop. Still, this approach isn't going to change anytime soon.

The structure of the game is interesting from a tabletop RPG perspective as it offers a distilled set-up similar to shows like Alias. It offers a model for a very structured RPG campaign that can operate on a very episodic, one-shot basis while not actually being a one-shot. The structure involves using a central location as an anchor and then using a mission-based structure. The central location provides a cool set as the default way to bring the characters together and provide a location for scenes should nothing else arise (it often might, but expediency means you want a cool one on hand). The mission-based structure basically sets up situations that need resolving, no doubt through cool video footage, intel and whatever else. The characters resolve that espionage situation utilising sound scene framing and gratuitous transitions. There may be a few hangover elements but the situation concludes. It would work quite well I think.

It’s a great game from a mature franchise. At times you just want to know what’s on the menu and know it’s done well. It’s not always about pushing the frontier.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 27/10/2013 Bookmark and Share
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