Posts Tagged ‘Science Fiction’

Seven role-playing games that changed my life pt.1

Recently, I saw that someone (Per Fischer, I think) had posted a list of the seven games he had played the most. I contemplated doing the same, but quickly gave it up. First of all, it would be very difficult to properly assess how much I played which games in my younger days. Secondly, it would not be a very interesting list, necessarily. I played a lot of certain games while I was relatively young, but they didn’t have that much of an impact on me. The list would probably include, in some order: Vampire: the Masquerade, Vampire: the Requiem, AD&D, D&D 3rd ed, Warhammer FRP 2nd ed, Call of Cthulhu, Shadowrun. But that would leave out some of the game that I haven’t played a lot, but which has meant a lot to my perception of what role-playing is, and even to the course of my life! And so, here is a list of seven role-playing games that changed my life, organized in (more or less) reverse chronology. I may well try the same with scenarios and/or board games. For some of them, I may mention some games that might almost have taken its place – but I wanted to only include seven, so I had to cut them out.

Spirit of the Century

In my world, Spirit of the Century is close to being the perfect golden mean between sleek, streamlined, mass produced, “traditional” big game company produced role-playing games and the auteurish, experimental, diamond-in-the-rough “indie” games inspired by the Forge. It is a blast to create a character in this game, and allows you to tailor the evening’s session to whoever is going to be present. It is the perfect tool to help you capture the feeling of a pulp hero story. It achieves this in three ways:

1) The book perfectly evokes the genre all the way through, so that by the time I’m through, I can’t wait to jump into adventures with two-fisted heroes like Jet Black and his friends, defeating nefarious foes like Gorilla Kahn and Doctor Methuselah.

2) The system gently, but surely, nudges me towards the kind of game it is designed for. Fate points reward players for enriching the story and providing interesting complications. Henchmen and npc rules make it easy to have the heroes fight off appropriate swarms of nefarious goons, and make the actual villain provide interesting obstacles to the heroes. The character creation rules mean that you could have Tarzan, Zorro, Allan Quartermain and Biggles in the same team – and it wouldn’t feel awkward! In fact, having one hero be a rich heir who’s a science prodigy, while another is a former war-pilot and the third is a big game hunter would make a lot of sense. Not least because…

3) The game master’s guide gives the would-be game master of a game of SotC some very simple tools to make a great game, based on the characters that are going to be in that particular session. It really has one of the best guides on how to be a GM that I have ever seen, and I would advice any new GM to read that guide, even if you have no interest in playing the actual game. It provides three very easy ways to design a story that is going to feel pulpy, based on the participating characters, and has a host of great advice. One great piece of advice that I took from the home-page, and which is good for almost any game is to make a spreadsheet showing which skills each character has, and at which level. If everybody has a skill, they want to test it. If someone has a high rank in a skill, they want to ace it. If only one person has a skill, even at a relatively low level, you can throw spotlight on them by challenging that skill. And if nobody took a skill – well, if your players aren’t interested in a particular kind of challenges, why punish them by testing it. That’s the kind of simple, useful, player-oriented advice this book is chock full off.

All in all, this game has consistently provided me with enjoyable gaming experiences. It doesn’t provide the gritty, visceral stories that might result from games like Apocalypse World, Dogs in the Vineyard or In a Wicked Age – all games that do some of what SotC also does – but the sheer ease and enjoyment of this game just puts it way ahead of them in my mind. Yes, indeed, this might actually be my favoritest role-playing game.

Mountain Witch

I still remember my first game of Mountain Witch (not that I have played it THAT much). It was at Fastaval, and I had joined an indie game introduction. I had never played an indie game before.

We were set upon by two tengu (raven spirits), when I used my “knowledge of the ancestors” (or something similar). I wanted to know how I might defeat the tengu. I looked expectantly up at the GM for an answer – and saw him looking back, equally expectant. That’s when it struck me: the answer was mine to give.

I didn’t give a very good answer. But the incident (which struck the GM – and I think it was Per Fischer, again – enough for him to recount it on The Forge) showed me the power of Story Now. I quickly acquired Mountain Witch, Dogs in the Vineyard and With Great Power…, three games I have read a lot, but unfortunately not played a lot. All three taught me a lot, though. With Great Power… was the one I most wanted to play, but unfortunately, its great ideas have not been honed enough to make a truly brilliant game. As such, I don’t think I’ve ever played a whole game of it. Dogs in the Vineyard packs a lot of punch for its short size, but the bidding mechanic of the game is difficult to do well, and can feel a little mechanic. Mountain Witch is difficult for me to properly prepare for, but is probably the best of the three.

But no matter its relative flaws and merits, Mountain Witch will forever stand as my first ever indie RPG. And those two hours alone earn it a place on this list.

Alternity

Alternity is a very peculiar game, and one that holds a special place in my heart. It was TSR’s attempt to make a game that might do for Space Opera what AD&D had done for Fantasy: provide one system that could work with a host of different worlds. While the game never gained much of a following, I think it succeeded in this mission far more than D&D ever did.

The game borrows a lot from its older brother: The d20, the six stats, the classes. But the whole feeling of the game is completely different. The game is skill based, and while levelling up makes you better at things, you don’t get that much better at resisting damage. This underlines that this is not a fighting game. But what is it?

Well, it can be many things. It is a universal science fiction game, and it is geared towards providing more or less realistic visions of a future among the stars. A number of settings came out for the game, including Star*Drive, the “main” setting of the game, and Dark Matter, an X-files inspired setting of paranormal investigation with extraterrestrials and extradimensionals and ghosts and what have we.

So why is this game on this list? Well, Alternity is a game that I never saw much outside of my own bookshelf, even though I thought it was so great. It is also one of a number of games which taught me something that I’m almost embarrassed to tell you that I needed to be taught: that it is interesting to play ordinary people, that it can be fun to be weak and vulnerable…. vincible? It also taught me that Science Fiction doesn’t have to be Star Trek, Star Wars, Terminator or Judge Dredd – it can also be Alien or Blade Runner, all about regular, vulnerable people in toned down surroundings.

A couple of games vied for this place: Warhammer FRP taught me the same thing about fantasy, and showed me why Dark Fantasy was great, and why it can be cool to play a rat catcher. And Call of Cthulhu taught me something similar about a more realistic setting – and it taught me that tragedy can be a blast. You can have your cake and be eaten too.

Till next time

And that’s it for now. I’ve been gushing far more than I thought I would. I’ll post the remaining four at a later time, and I’ll try to gush a bit less. Until then, please tell me what you think of these games – and do tell me which games changed your world.

 

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Why I liked but didn’t love Anne McCaffrey – an obituary

I just read that Anne McCaffrey has died, 85 years of age.

This made me stop and think of those of her many (around 100, it would seem) novels I’ve read. I’ve of course hit the Pern books, first with the Danish translations of the “Harpers Hall” mini-series (Dragosong, Dragonsinger and Dragondrums), later with some of the books about dragonriders, including the first book, Dragonflight, and later on a number of the others – it’s been more than ten years since I read the last Pern book, as far as I can remember, and I can’t remember exactly which ones it was.

I’ve also read some of her books that are more obviously sci-fi: The ship that sang, about a girl with birth defects who is stuck in a tank and destined to end her days as the brains of a spaceship. Think HAL, but there’s an actual human brain in the middle of the circuits. The Crystal Singer books, about a woman who goes to harvest some special crystals on a special planet. The crystals are crucial to  interstellar communications and transport, and are thus very valuable. Finally, I read The Rowan, about a girl who turns out to be one of the strongest psychics in the known universe, and thus asked to take care of transporting goods to and from her solar system.

It seems I’ve only dipped my toe in the ocean that is Anne McCaffrey’s opus. I’ve enjoyed reading her books -but I also enjoyed the DaVinci code, the same way I also enjoy eating greasy McDonald’s food, so that’s not necessarily a criteria for reading, and certainly not for recommending, a book.

I also feel like she is a woman who wanted something with her books. The Pern books particularly are full of lessons about the codependence of humans upon each other, one group needing the other, and each individual having a worth in themselves and a need for others. Similarly in The ship who sang, in which, firstly, the ship is actually a disabled person, and where, even though

she’s a genuine spaceship, she still needs something – a Brawn to her Brain, someone who can walk around inside of her and take care of fiddly bits that require hands.

But at the same time, I have a few troubles with her – like the fact that she regularly states as a natural thing that her protagonist is bound by a lifelong debt to some company. Like Cillashandra from the Crystal Singer series, who racked up a massive dept from training and initial outfitting, and who then accumulates more debt every time she needs a new service from the company.

But there’s something else – something I find far more worrying and which leaves a far worse taste in my mouth: the way all of her heroines seem to end up in very, VERY conservative patterns. Basically, with two possible exceptions that I can think of, the heroines I’ve encountered in her books all end up playing second fiddle to a man. Often a younger man, but certainly a man they’ve somehow helped create, and then they realize that they are much better off being his adoring and supporting number 2. Like [spoilers galore] Killashandra, who finds a pretty young boy in book two, who comes to join her at the crystal planet in book three and end up leader of the guild. Or the Rowan, who is the strongest telepath they have, and who then discover a wild talent on a far away, forgotten planet, who is even stronger and who end up on top of the telepath hierarchy with her as number 2. Or Lessa, who risks her life traveling through time so that she can be a housewife and her husband can be a real, dragon flying, hero.

In short, I think Anne McCafrey has done a lot for sci-fi, and she has written many great books. I’d just wish they didn’t leave me with such a bad taste in my mouth.

Danger Patrol: Thwarting Crushtjov

Last Thursday, I tried out the beta version of Danger Patrol. The game went well, but there are some kinks. I’ll start with a brief recap, then I’ll present some of my issues with the game. At the end, I’ll say a little about my overall attitude to the game.

Danger Patrol is a pastiche of old tv-shows like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. You play the heroes of the Danger Patrol, defending Rocket City from all manner of villains who want to destroy, conquer or enslave the proud city.

How the game went

We were three people playing : apart from me we were Mads and one of his regular players, Sander.

They made an Atomic Agent and a Psychic Commando – two of the many peculiar combo’s the game allow for.

I for my part took the easy way out, and took the setup that is used as an example: Scarlet Apes attack Rocket City’s rocket car traffic. We had an action packed first scene, with our two heroes zooming up and down, saving people from plummeting rocket cars, slaloming between clotheslines and using holograms and psychic projections to stop the disaster from happening.

After that, we took some brief interlude scenes. I don’t quite remember them, but I think one took place at the monkey cage, with the mayor coming to greet the heroes.

Then, on to investigate this crime. One of them stayed at the cage, trying to find out who had let the apes out of their cage, the other trying to find out who would benefit, a trail leading to the mayor – who turned out to be a traitor, and fled down a secret staircase. Meanwhile, the other hero found a trail leading to a warehouse. And lo and behold – this was were the mayor was running to!

In the warehouse was a number of Crimson Republic guards alongside their leader, General Crushtjov, the nemesis of the players. Also in there was a Mysterious Character, the mercenary villain who’d commanded the apes to attack! The mayor bust ind, and panicked explained that he was found out. But the General laughed – they were ready to launch the Red Comet upon Rocket City!

The players came up with an ingenious plan:  Sander, the Psychic Commando, would throw in a smoke grenade. Meanwhile, Mads, the Atomic Agent, would sneak up upon one of the guards, take him out and put on his uniform.

The minute the smoke grenade went off, the general started to prepare a Rocket Ship for departure. The Mysterious Figure summoned more apes, and the mayor panicked. This action scene was more combat oriented, but equally intense, than the first. Mads was surrounded by burning Gasolineum from barrels thrown by the apes, but used a burst from his rocket pack to get out – thus blowing fire straight down into the puddle of highly volatile, burning liquid! It all ended when Mads, somehow assisted by Sander, blasted over the head of the Mysterious figure, and destroyed the engine of the General’s Rocket Ship, just as he was taking off, making him crash a short way away.

All in all, we had good fun. There were a lot of funny things going on, a lot of which I’ve unfortunately forgotten now. The system, however, is clearly a work in progress.

The issues I had with the system

The first kink was making good “Last time on” sequences. This was mostly my fault for not explaining it properly. One player started describing the entire plot of the last episode, instead of just describing a short scene of something he wanted in this episode. Also, being only two players in the game, I didn’t get a lot to work with in these scenes.

The combat system mostly worked fine. Most of it was quick, and very action oriented. The role of the action map, however, seems poorly thought out: the impression is of something very loose, but some rules seem to demand more exact maps, to know what would have to pass to get somewhere. Also, the telekinesis power requires the map to be much more than a guideline. Giving the players access to the map may not be the best idea – it’s the purview of the GM, and giving the player a power that allows him to change the position of things on the map seems to require that the GM decides what can be moved and what can’t.

There is also the issue of threats and threat actions. Now, being two players no doubt played a significant role in this – but it often seemed like I had a whole host of Threats that should be activated because the players hadn’t done anything about them. In the game, the Threats act according to a Threat table. There are two instances in which you consult this chart: if the player rolled ‘dangers’ (failed dice) you’d add them together and look up that level. If the players haven’t rolled against the threat, you look up its level +1 in the chart. Having quite a few threats, I did this quite often. Now, the only thing the lowest level of threat can do if there isn’t a player within its reach, is to store up a so-called “danger die” that would be rolled the next time a PC rolled against it, but counted only  if it was a ‘Danger’.  At one point, half the threats had red (danger) dice waiting for the players when they came to deal with them. Other threats would instead warrant the creation of a new threat. Unfortunately, I ran out of ideas way before I ran out of opportunities to make new threats. I think it would make much better sense to make a Threat Menu with many options that could be combined for different levels, making it easier to mix up danger actions.

Don’t get me wrong – I like the fact that threats don’t act on their own, but instead react to players. It’s a good way of spotlighting what the players are doing. It just needs some tweaking.

Throughout the game, I had difficulty gauging the balancing of player resources. Players have a number of resources: danger, damage and [+]’es (aspects that can be tagged for bonus dice). Some of these can be regained during Interludes. But my players seemed to be using a lot of these – enough that it looked like they’d run out before the end of the game.

This led me to go against what I believed was the rules’ intention on Interludes. The game doesn’t state this explicitly, but it indicates that there is supposed to be one interlude after each action scene. This makes sense – if you have five players, having five interludes would be excessive. On the other hand, I had two players, who were running low on resources after the first Action Scene. Thus, I let them have an Interlude each.

Now, Suspense Scenes. Suspense scenes are supposed to be investigation scenes of a sort, fighting questions as if they were threats. This indicated that they would work like action scenes. However – I already said my players were burning through their resources. If they had to use them on Suspense as well? They’d run out immediately. Besides, it says in the rules that threats generated here should be saved for later Action Scenes. Thus,  it makes sense that they shouldn’t get danger, and especially not damage, through these scenes. What then? If they haven’t got the [+]es to get bonus dice, and they don’t really need danger dice (they could get them, I guess, but I’m not sure it makes sense for them to endanger themselves like that in the suspense scenes that serve to pave the way for action scenes.

I feel like there must be something I’m missing (and it has been a week, so I might have forgotten important things here). But in my opinion, Suspense scenes are the single weakest point in the game as it stands – they don’t make sense. As I recall, they aren’t very well described, either – they are probably still being thought out, as opposed to Action Scenes, which seem to have been well planned.

All in all…

I like this game. It’s unfinished – this can clearly be seen in the game document, which has “notes to the author” instead of finished content in several places. But I can see its potential. I want to try the next edition of the game – and eventually the finished thing. It may be a work in progress – but it’s a work I really want to see progress.

[Movie Review] Avatar

Movie Poster for Avatar

The movie poster for Avatar, featuring the Na'vi princess.

Since it came out, James Cameron’s Avatar has been hailed as a masterpiece, the harbinger of a new era of film-making. A film to bush the boundaries, and to boldly go where no film has gone before.

And it is. The story is epic, the animation and camerawork is grand, and the idea is genius. There is no doubt in my mind that this film will be the film of the year. It will win at every feasible award show, and its Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic ratings will skyrocket. All this, because (at least, it might seem so) that’s how the film was made. Would you expect anything less from the maker of Titanic?

Dancing with Pocahontas in space.

In a future world where humanity are colonizing planets far away in space, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) wakes up on Pandora, a moon circling the planet Polyphemus in the Alpha Centauri system. He’s there to pilot a so-called “Avatar,” an organism, made by combining DNA from the indigenous Na’vi with DNA from a human. The human providing the DNA can then take control of the organism thus produced.

Except Jake wasn’t meant to be an avatar pilot. His deceased identical twin brother was. Jake is a crippled ex-marine, while his brother, like the rest of the avatar-team, was a scientist.

Jake is not particularly enthusiastic about the project – nor is the leader of the Avatar project, Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), thrilled about having him and not his brother. The tough chief of security, ex-marine colonel Quaritch, on the other hand, is thrilled to have a marine on the inside of the wuss scientist team, who can tell him all about the Na’vi – such as how to get rid of them most efficiently.

Of course, Jakes attitude to the whole thing changes when he meets the Na’vi and is accepted into their tribe where the scientists have all been rejected. It can come as no great shock that Jake will soon face the consequences of the humans’ advances on Pandora, and pick a side in the inevitable conflict between Na’vi and humans. Guess who he’ll choose…

2D in 3D

Avatar is, in most ways, an amazing accomplishment. The digitally produced sceneries are breathtaking, not least when viewed in 3D. The alien biology of Pandora is very original, while still seeming believable and coherent. The human technology seems just as well constructed. You get the impression that Cameron has gone out of his way to listen to scientists and take their views and ideas seriously.

The composition of the film is just as impressive. The pacing of the hectic and the subtle, the bad and the good – it works. The plot is believable, yet still contains surprises.

Most of the characters work just as well. Jake is a brilliant protagonist – we can relate to him, and while he starts out with several issues he needs to resolve, he is still likeable, especially as we see the good sides of him come out. Sigourney Weaver’s character is the same: a scientist with a bad attitude, but a heart of gold.

But it’s not all just peachy. First of all, the Na’vi seem too much like stereotypical Indians – many of their lines could have come out of Dances with Wolves, or similar, white-man-goes-native style films.

Secondly, the villains are two dimensional and somewhat unoriginal. The middle manager, doing anything for profit and the Marine colonel with a thirst for battle are both characters we’ve seen in loads of films. Especially the marine colonel urgently needs something to properly distinguish him from the million movie characters like him. Why on earth is he so battle thirsty? Why has he decided the Na’vi are bad? We are never told.

Just as some characters seem shallow, certain facets of the plot seem a bit tired. Why another film where a giant corporation tramples all decency and human compassion? Another one to put on the pile with Alien (all four of them), Blade Runner, I Robot, Robocop, Terminator – should I continue? Couldn’t we for once see a film where the men with the money see the error of their ways and help find a common ground? And why another film about a white man who meets the noble wild, learns of their ways, and leads them to victory against his former allies? I saw Dances with Wolves, thank you very much – I have no need to see it again in space.

The inevitability of academy

But when you’re watching the film, these things are minor, and very forgettable, annoyances. You’ll be far busier being amazed by the glorious images and the riveting story. This film is a shoe in for the technical Oscars, pushing the boundaries of computer assisted filmmaking, and doing wonders in sound and music. And while I can’t see any of the acting meriting awards, the director and scriptwriters are likely to receive nominations, at the very least.

Because this film is a milestone. It pushes boundaries of what can be done with computers, and sets new standards for all coming films to aspire to. And, what to me seems just as important, it sheds light on some neglected parts of what science fiction can do.

All in all: there are few, if any, excuses for not watching this film. Go on, don’t be shy. But do take it for what it is: a grand, masterfully produced, Hollywood blockbuster, tailored to be just that.

Oh, and if you don’t know anything about Avatar – take a look at the trailer:

To be honest, it pretty much says what I just said above…

How to rip a film apart

I know I said I was going to bed, but I just saw a review of an animated film called Battle For Terra…

http://current.com/items/90029756_battle-for-terra-reviewed-by-the-rotten-tomatoes-show.htm?xid=

…ouch. Just ouch. I wanna see the film now, see if it’s so bad.