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Ian O'Rourke
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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
Tenerife #5: Playas de las Americas
Keywords: Places; Tenerife May 2014.

I had no idea what to expect of Playas de las Americas. I think, out of total ignorance, I was expecting it to be a bit like Magaluff Weekender or Ibiza Uncovered and as a result we were best out of it. In truth, at night, in certain areas, it may well be like this, I just don’t know, but from what we saw of it it’s very different.

You can get to the various urban areas (Los Cristianos, Playas de las Americas and Costa Adeje) easy from the Bahia Principe, Tenerife hotel as there is a bus stop at the top of the street that leads to the hotel. Nice coach. Simple to use. Friendly locals. The hotel also runs a free bus every day to Playas de las Americas, the only disadvantage to this bus is it leaves at 1200 and returns at 1800, so you’re sort of stuck if you don’t want to experience it for full six hours.

How to describe what we saw of Playas de las Americas? It’s quite impressive. Very nice in a commercial, tourist sort of way (which is no problem with us). I suppose it’s a bit like a high end International Drive, with a bit of Miami and a very small bit of Vegas scale mixed in while not being exactly like any of them. It’s certainly a lot nicer than Los Cristianos, though I suppose they’d argue it’s crass while Los Cristianos still has some of its ‘traditional’ (but not quaint) feel.

There are shops in las Americas. Lots of them. Plenty of supermarkets and clusters of stores, some of them are very nice, organised into little shopping centres. As far as we could tell this is not a place for shopping for cheap tat (unless you want to be scammed by an electronics vendor). All the shops were for brands, some of them quite high end, the nicer ones are probably even the actual brands. At the same time, the shops tends to form into a certain profile: clothes, perfumes and cameras (and for some reason cigarettes and tobacco as well as cameras, which is rather random). There are some very nice, official and above board shops. There are also some to be wary of.

The camera shops are the oddest, for some reason everyone in Tenerife seems to want to sell you a camera lens. I should modify this by saying every Indian on Tenerife seems to want to sell you a camera lens. I have to say, while I was safe from temptation due to most of their stock being Nikon and Canon stuff, I wouldn’t by a single lens from those stores. It has the vibe of being hustled. No idea what I should be paying. Half the time nothing has prices on. You know what? On the odd time I did see a price it seemed so cheap I’m not even convinced they’re actually real branded gear (or what you’d get in the box is branded gear)! I mean, they look very real, but still. As far as I understood it everything should be more costly, not half the price!

I follow two very simple principles: if it’s too good to be true…it probably is and don’t trust a shop that hustles you to come inside like an Ibiza bar. I wouldn’t enter any of these stores, as I suspect once they have you inside they have the strategies and manpower to not let you out. That’s my view anyway, possibly I’m wrong.

You also can’t move for restaurants. I’m sure they vary in quality but you’d never be short of places to eat if you’d decided to stay in las Americas. The most impressive restaurant was The Hard Rock. It’s new this year and has been built pretty much on the scale of the restaurants you see at the Universal parks. Big. Up Market. Nice. In all honesty we’d have eaten there but we hadn’t really planned on it so we weren’t that hungry. Next time we’ll plan around it and certainly have a meal at the Hard Rock.

The promenade is also quite nice to walk along. This is one of the more interesting things about the trio of Los Cristianos, las Americas and Costa Adeje as there is one long promenade you can walk along that spans all the towns. Now, I have to admit at this point I’ve only seen that on a map and had it explained to me by the lovely Thomas Cook rep, but based on the bits we’ve seen walking the length of that, or at least more of it, might be interesting next time. It’s just a pity it doesn’t continue on out of Costa Adeje to our hotel, but apparently the coastal geography doesn’t allow it.

So, Playas de las Americas? Very colourful, very commercial and if you like that sort of thing it’s great. We do. We don’t mind seeing the commercial sights. We also quite like the fact our hotel isn’t in the centre of it. Best of both worlds.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 07/05/2014 Bookmark and Share
Tenerife #4: The Octogenarian Flash Mob
Keywords: Places; Tenerife May 2014.

We did nothing much today. The fourth day of the holiday and the first one which involved doing absolutely nothing but sitting by the pool. Glorious weather. Great time. Oddly, it is very tiring doing nothing.

It's interesting watching the beats of the hotels day. At about 10.30 the hotel wishes everyone good morning. The activities kick in with both a morning and afternoon set of slots, albeit they don't bother you if you're not involved. The recruitment drive for water polo was doomed to failure due to the average age of the guests. Still, Fiesta Consulting, who seem to manage the entertainment schedule and provide the staff, do a great job. While they can't be forgiven for subjecting us to Cinemania, each one of them just has a great way with people and the kids. They also do ridiculously long days for what I suspect is relatively little money.

They even have a theme tune for the hotel with a dance routine.

The entertainment tonight exemplifies how random it all is. The Abba tribute act was great while Cinemania was so terrible it was funny. Tonight was a Drifters tribute act, which also managed to get an Octogenarian Flash Mob going. All the silver foxes were sat all composed and then at some point they all started to dance to The Drifters tunes of their youth. I’ve never seen a flash mob feature so much dad dancing, hip replacements and dodgy knees in my life. Some of the dancing was interesting behold! It was exciting though, it had energy and excitement even though I was a couple of generations removed from the whole experience.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 06/05/2014 Bookmark and Share
Tenerife #3: Loro Parque
Keywords: Places; Tenerife May 2014.

If you don't know much about Loro Parque and go just from the name and don't investigate further you might be inclined to give it a miss. 'Parrot Park'? It has the whiff of one of those half-day attractions in Orlando that most people avoid? This might have been the case when it first opened in the 70's, now the park gives places like Sea World a run for their money and is a place you must visit - Trip Advisor tells you so.

One of the most impressive things about Loro Parque is how it is run.

It is ridiculously clean despite being in a natural, 'topical-like' forest environment. The animal enclosures are some of the cleanest I've seen...ever. Could some of them be a bit larger? Probably, but it' not that they are small, it's just they are smaller than some of the expansive enclosures you see in places like the Animal Kingdom (who still bring their animals inside at night) or places more orientated to being a safari park. It's a comparison thing rather than a bad treatment issue. The effort put into the place shows that while we'd all agree, wild is always best, due to the effect we are having on the world Zoos and conservation are necessary and Loro Parque is a great example.

The second impressive thing about how the park is run is the guest management. Not every park gets it right. Loro Parque does it very well. You enter the park knowing you have numerous shows to see and a Discovery Tour (more on that later) to schedule and it is all too easy to not balance everything correctly and find you've ran out of slots. Not at Loro Parque. You arrive and immediately hit the information desk for your Discovery Tour, they promptly get you to choose a slot spoken in your language and then you are informed on what to see at what times for efficiency and, just as important, what not to see as it is on the tour to ensure you get everything in. I can't say how much this was appreciated, how well it was done and how much thought has gone into organising the tours and the structure of all the parks to ensure the guest has a painless, integrated experience.

It turns your day into an efficient, confusion free attraction experiencing machine. Brilliant.

Your time at Loro Parque is essentially spent seeing animals in gloriously clean and natural-like environments, all of them look amazingly happy with their lot, and seeing the various shows. The shows are based on the Sea World model, and the park has obviously got strong connections with Sea World and they've given them the lowdown on how to do it. The dolphin and Orca shows are pretty much exact copies - so you don't need to see the Sea World shows after going to Loro Parque. The same is also true. We enjoyed the shows, but having seen the Sea World ones so much they offered nothing new. This especially the case with the Orca show, as the new 'do not swim with the most intelligent, mammal predators in the ocean' rules takes some of the spectacle away from the show (and rightly so, but it is less exciting).

Now the Discovery Tour, it cost us about 10 euro each and it was worth every penny. We've done a similar one at Sea World and I think this one was better. You get a 105 minute tour, which takes you behind the scenes of the gorilla enclosure, penguin area, dolphin pools and the killer whales. It's very informative and very interesting. The filtration machinery for the penguin enclosure has to be seen to be believed and that's miniscule put to the machinery needed to keep the Orca pools pristine. It's very good and well worth the money and due to the brilliant organisation you won't miss a thing and it fills out your day nicely. There is a premium tour for around 10 euro more, which is probably well worth the money as it includes dinner and priority seating at the shows.

The only people who should give Loro Parque a miss are those with a moral objection to Zoos no matter how well they are run. I see them as a necessary part of the modern world and I am happy the best Zoos with their associated foundations add a net benefit to the world. Everyone else should go. If you're looking for a Florida-style experience but you're unlikely to go then get yourself to Loro Parque.

As for the evening...what happens when you let the hotel staff with delusions of having dance and singing skills put on a show? Well, back in the day something good might result, such as the Red Coat show that many a variety performer got their start at, but this isn't that, what we got was Cinemania.

I cannot describe how bad Cinemania was. It was just so bad it bordered on the surreally funny.

It involved clips from films with a certain theme, which was loosely connected to the number that the audience was about to suffer, but was really a chance for them to change costumes. You then got dancing your well intentions niece might subject you to, but would have got buzzed off Britains Got Talent in five seconds, or people miming to the songs. I've seen better Cosplay performances at science fiction conventions, at least they acknowledged the level they were playing at.

The best bit was when some young girl came on and blasted out Let It Go, albeit with a half working microphone and she wasn't part of the act but a guest who decided she just need to get her Frozen thing out. People should have heckled them to bring the girl back on.

The odd thing was, it was so bad you sort of had to watch it till the end, but I have no idea what anyone involved was thinking? At first, we thought some students had got together and decided to milk the money in the hotel entertainment business while putting in as little effort as possible. At least that would have had a certain amount of balls. I could appreciate that. Heh, what can I say, the two people who did the multiple languages Eurovision-style introduction where good? If I was one of those staff members on duty tomorrow? I'd hide.

A food update. The main buffet was excellent today, the first one we’ve experienced since they late drive by on the evening of arrival. We just suffered from arriving in the final 30 minutes on the first day I think.

Tomorrow we do nothing but sit by the pool, read and experience the Asia restaurant..again.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 05/05/2014 Bookmark and Share
Tenerife #2: A Very Random Day
Keywords: Places; Tenerife May 2014.

The first full day often has a bit of a doing business feel to it, especially if it is your first visit to a place. You tend to build up a list of questions. Then you have the welcome meeting, also worth a shot if it's your first visit, sorting out trips and restaurant bookings, etc. The product of this morning’s efforts was our questions answered, trips to Loro Parque and Mount Teide booked and three table service restaurants arranged (Asia twice and Mexico).

Louise also wanted to visit the market of fake goods, something I have to suffer, and the only market we could get to was today's, off we went on a hastily planned trip to Los Cristianos that was destined to find anything but the actual market. Still, there is a bus stop just a very short walk away from the hotel, at the top of the road, which routes through Costa Adeje, Playas des las Americas and Los Cristianos.

Los Cristianos isn't great. I certainly wasn't inspired to stay there. You get off at the bus stop and the place is a bit of a dump. True, it gets better once you closer to the beach front, but it still doesn't overly inspire. It's okay. Nice in places. It has no wow factor. I wouldn't recommend staying there from our, admittedly short, visit. It is the beach front promenade that is interesting as it is apparently one big walk that runs from Los Cristianos along the coast to Costa Adejie. I'm not sure how long it is, we just know it's a continuous promenade from the map. While not something we'd do this trip, walking it might be interesting should we return.

And no, we saw no sign of the market, as predicted.

The all-inclusive experiment continues. Breakfast was nice, it's the typical European hotel buffet, complete with the strange foreign bacon they have, no idea what they do with the rest of the pig. The food available between allotted meal times is very basic. Basic snack food. It's on the level of pizza, burgers, chicken nuggets, etc. Oddly, they seem to offer nachos 'on tap'. This isn't that big a problem considering they have main buffets available 0730 – 1030, 1300 – 1500 and then 1800 – 2200.

The killer benefit of being all inclusive is availability of drinks 'on tap', quite literally. This means you're never short of a branded soft drink to quench your thirst. There is also wine from cooled barrels and beer taps. You can quite literally sit by the pool and enjoy what feels like an 80% vodka slushy. On the evening instead of having orange juice on tap they have cocktails, they even use the same type of dispenser. There is bottles of wine sitting around in ice buckets so you can fill your glass on demand or, as a group of young girls did, eye up the fullest ones and then wonder off with the actual bottles. Surprisingly, despite the availability of so much alcohol and so many British people, we haven't not anyone that drunk, never mind rowdy drunks. It’s all very civilised.

The find of the day was the Asia restaurant. As part of the all-inclusive experience you have a number of sittings at table service restaurants at the hotel consisting of Asian, Mexican, Spanish and Italian options. While the evening buffet put in a solid, but not exciting performance, the Asian restaurant was amazing. We're glad we booked it twice. The starters come in the form of a very fresh, very good buffet, which is almost a meal in itself if you don't control yourself, a menu selected main and then a buffet desert. It was very nice and the best Chinese food we've had in a long while. Looking forward to the Mexican experiment.

Tomorrow is our first organised trip, which means getting up quite early. Loro Paque, which looks really good.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 04/05/2014 Bookmark and Share
Tenerife #1: The Journey to Tenerife
Keywords: Places; Tenerife May 2014.

The annoying thing about going on holiday is you have to travel there. Unless you are doing something exotic like cruising across the Atlantic or some sort of picturesque drive or rail journey the time spent travelling invariable involves the least exotic of travel methods: flying.

Let's just say that travelling on a Bank Holiday weekend isn't something to be recommended.

Normally, we have pretty smooth airport experiences, but this time I felt like I was jet-lagged even before I'd boarded the plane. We arrived at the car park and it was nearly two hours before we got through security leaving us very little time to look around and regain our composure. Four buses passed us in the car park, which was the size of the Magic Kingdom. Then the web check-in queue was quite long, often you walk straight up to it. After that came security, which was also long, compact and hot.

Once we got through we quickly purchased a camera bag, luckily the one I'd looked into was in stock, but it still involved me hastily unboxing the camera, putting the lens on and trying it all out for size. We then got some water and chocolate, went to the toilet only to have about ten minutes before we queued up to get on the plane. Thankfully, we did set off really early, if we'd set off 30 minutes later, which wouldn't have seemed like complete madness, we may have almost missed the plane.

Flight was fine. It went by without feeling like it dragged too much even though I didn't particularly do anything. Some people spend a fortune on those flights? I kept seeing £20 notes being thrown at the aircraft staff like confetti. The Thomas Cook planes continue to be cramped and not particularly visually appealing. In our experience the Ryanair planes are much better. Yes I know, people think I’m mad, but our experiences bares it out, and I’m pretty sure the Thomas Cook flight experience is the secret pain of the civil aviation world.

Regrettably, the flights to Tenerife offered by Thomas Cook aren't great, as they don't leave the UK until 1500, which meant we didn't get to the hotel until 2100. You always have to factor in the laggards who seem to take ages to get from the airport to the transfer coach. We do make the time back on the last day, but it still felt like a wasted day. They organise the flights to ensure you don’t get a full first and last day, regrettably (the best you can get is half of each).

Luckily, the main evening buffet didn't close until 2200 so we did manage to get something to eat. On the basis of this one evening the food isn’t anything outstanding. I'd say the food at the Port Aventura hotels is better, but we are reserving our full judgement due to swanning up quite late and the selection varies from day-to-day. The all-inclusive thing is going to take some time to get used to. I suspect it is going to involve a number of hours sat in the bar in the evening.

Tomorrow, a bit of business to sort and then potentially a lot of time by the pool!

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 03/05/2014 Bookmark and Share
Lenses, Such Interesting Toys!
Keywords: Technology.

I have the Lumix G6 in my hands. I’ve had it in my hands for about week. Regrettably, it didn’t turn up the following day in the store so I had to wait a full week to get my hands on it due to being away due to work. I have it. It’s very nice.

At the minute I am wondering snapping shots on intelligent auto, so I’m not doing anything that special, but it’s still more fun. Not sure why. I think it’s the feel of the camera. It’s larger, but not too heavy. It has the articulated LCD screen which I’m always keen on but I’m also finding I’m snapping shots with the gorgeous EVF. It’s a very nice EVF. Even while just doing this the photos have an obvious upgrade in quality due to the sensor being better than what is in a typical point and shoot.

I took the camera away with me this week and we went on a walk up to the Ulverston Lighthouse. It was a good walk, even if I did have to stop twice to get all the way to the top. It afforded me some time to start getting used to the 14 - 42mm lens and how zooming it restricts the aperture. Not sure I’m going to be a big zoom person…

Anyway, I said the camera was nice? I did go through my usual post-purchase shock. I’m over it now. It comes down to adjusting to this multiple lens thing.

When I purchased the G6 I was the quintessential customer straddling the ease of use, point and shoot world and the DSLR world. I wanted to be more towards the convenience and price of point and shoot, but I was getting sick of the restrictions. I wasn’t convinced I was going to get into the multiple lens thing much, which I was aware would also make buying a multi-lens camera a bit odd.

Hence the panic: why didn’t I just buy the much cheaper Lumix FZ200 bridge camera with its funky zoom lens that maintains a 2.8 aperture? I got over that and after using the G6 a bit I’m slowly coming around to the lenses thing. I might even say I’ve moved from casting a wary eye at buying multiple lenses and slowly shifting to eyeing up the damned things.

You see there is something you understand about cameras, but only sort of abstractly until you have the power to change it: the settings you have to play with are largely decided by the lens! Yes, I’ve always know that, but having the flexibility to change something is power and that results in you thinking about it a bit more. This then turns into you thinking about the types of photographs you are going to take and in turn the equipment to do them a bit better and easier.

A simple example first, in the form of a typical holiday situation. You go and see a show at a theme park, doesn’t matter what it is, you’ll be in an open stadium a bit back from events. You can just snap away, but what happens if you want the shot of that dolphin, the water spraying of it's back, etc? Time to pull out the longer range lens, just get that bit closer? Rather than staying with the smaller lens that is capable of wider shots, which has landscape advantages. This comes up with just the two lenses that come with the camera.

I also like taking night shots. In fact, if there is one single thing that fascinates me it is shots in low light. This is probably the single, biggest frustration with the cameras I have had as I’ve tried to take some of the bueatiful images you see at, say, theme parks at night? Currently the camera isn’t great at night, but I have the power to change that! I’ve been looking at fast, low light prime lenses, which seem to be an interesting option. Ridiculously low apertures and they don’t zoom. I’d have never considered something that didn’t zoom, but now I am looking at the options. A fast, low light lens, and since it is a prime it is very small, would be perfect for wondering around Vegas in the evening since it's invariably (a) at night and (b) inside lighting.

It’s early days with the camera, but I am enjoying it. I’m quite surprised I am coming around to the lens thing, but I can now see how, as long as you managed the baggage factor (hence the Lumix and not a DSLR as the lenses are much smaller) it is empowering rather than annoying.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 02/05/2014 Bookmark and Share
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
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