Friday, 17 November 2017

Book of the Month: London Falling by Paul Cornell

Paul Cornell was not a name I was familiar with before London Falling. Yet he is quite an established writer in the science fiction arena, working across a range of media, including comics and television.

London Falling is the first of a series of novels about a team of London police officers who have been granted an insight into the supernatural world around them and a wider occult conspiracy that wraps the capital in its folds.

Cornell is already well-known in the Doctor Who fraternity. I've never been a huge Doctor Who fan, other than during the Tom Baker era. Once Baker handed the baton on to Peter Davison I lost interest, as I felt Davison was a cad and a fool (an impression reinforced somewhat having met him in the flesh). Cornell wrote an early Doctor Who novel and the screen plays for a number of Doctor Who episodes as well as episodes of the BBC's Robin Hood series which aired in 2006-2007. Heck, he's even written for DC Comics and Marvel. His experience of writing screen plays for UK medical dramas has stood him in good stead for this exercise.

Cornell is a pretty prolific writer then, but he's got a good grasp of the dark underbelly of British criminal society (there's plenty of true crime on British TV and in the newspapers to draw from) and his portrayal of the politics and procedures that beset the Metropolitan Police comes across as extremely authentic.

In London Falling four police officers with very different personal backgrounds become involved in a terrifying urban fantasy as part of an undercover operation to capture a notorious London underworld figure. Two of them are actually working as undercover officers within the organisation in question, while another is coordinating the whole thing (Operation Goodfellow, if I remember correctly). When things all go horribly wrong, they end up as part of a spin off operation, Operation Toto, which starts looking into the more unexplained aspects of the case.

It is tough to go into more detail about the plot without spoiling it, but from the first chapter you are caught up in a gritty and fast-moving story that goes on to encompass ghosts, demons, witches, familiars, human sacrifice and magic. And Premiership football! And beer, lots of beer.

Those who have read Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere will like London Falling, although I would say it is a little darker and shocking than Neverwhere, straying into the realm of horror more than once. Indeed, it feels a little more like Alan Moore's From Hell at times. If I was pinned down, I'd say it is almost as if Gaiman and Moore collaborated on something.

But this is also a book about London - the capital is the backdrop for a quest that takes the team into the depths of urbanomancy, the magic of places and of people (hence the echoes of From Hell). Players of Unknown Armies will be familiar with some of this, and I was regularly reminded of UA throughout the book.

I would heartily recommend the audio book if you can lay hands on it, as the narration by Damian Lynch is just fantastic. He gets the accents precisely right and really makes the characters jump off the page. It makes such a difference when a narrator is retained who can carry off different character accents.

London Falling is also the first in a series of novels collected under the moniker of the Shadow Police, and is followed by The Severed Streets, which came out in 2014. I will it.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Phoenix Dawn Command - first thoughts

I had the opportunity last night to play in my first game of Phoenix Dawn Command, an interesting exercise accompanied by fantastic cake from my friend Kelvin, who also ran the game. It was accompanied by the usual gigantic mugs of team from host Ash.

PDC, as I shall refer to it, as a new game from Keith Baker, most widely known as the creator of the Eberron campaign setting for Dungeons and Dragons, which I believe emerged in about 2003 as the first campaign setting to be published after the launch of the 3rd edition of the game.

PDC is one of what I believe will be the next generation of RPGs, combining aspects of traditional pen and paper RPGs, with elements of successful card games like Magic the Gathering and board games. It seems to me as if the current boom in board gaming is bringing more people into the RPG hobby, at least a recent article in the New Yorker argues thus. And the outcome is likely to be more games like PDC.

This is no bad thing. PDC recognises that we have less time and shorter attention spans than we used to. It is competing against other forms of gaming entertainment. Emulation, therefore, is one ingredient of possible success.

The game's setting is very redolent of Exalted, in that the players are epic heroes who have returned at a time of need, when a crumbling empire faces crisis. They are possessed of superhuman powers and, more importantly, the ability to reincarnate. Each character, like in the 1980s RPG Paranoia, can reincarnate six times before they move on to a new arc in their existence. There is something of Buddhism in all this. Ultimately, you are out to save the world, but can die/sacrifice yourself with less punitive consequences than, say, in D&D.

Each character  - I think they are called Phoenixes - reincarnates the next day if slain, and they come back more powerful than ever. Rather than levelling up through experience to improve the abilities of your character, you need to die for this to happen. In addition, and more originally, the manner of your death can help to shape the abilities you return with.

The game relies on hands of cards you draw from your own personal deck. A character is partly defined by this, and it is a good way of moderating and expanding the power of PCs. Having played Faith already, I can appreciate this mechanic, and am considering something similar for my own home brew Viscounts & Vagabonds game, on which I plan to do more work over Christmas when things get a bit quieter.

PDC brings with it some interesting elements - specifying particular features/aspects of a combat in advance allows characters to then utilise these to gain an additional advantage, which I like, and may incorporate into the swashbuckling aspects of V&V. There are no combat grids here either, rather a list of things that define the battle - a water barrel for example - and it is up to the players to find a way to use these to gain bonuses. Once used, that particular feature cannot be re-employed in the battle..

There is no character sheet either, again an interesting design innovation that Faith also explores. Instead, players use a number of cards sitting in front of them, plus some counters. It does have me wondering whether the character sheet has had its day. Again, something else to add to the mix for V&V!

Do I have any criticisms of PDC? Overall I think it is a solid game and enjoyed playing it. The setting, perhaps, is almost too redolent of Exalted to be called completely original, and indeed you could easily transpose PDC rules into the Exalted setting. There is little to separate the Solars and the Phoenixes.

The emphasis of seeking an heroic death has one flaw, which is that once a character is killed, it will take until the following dawn for them to return. In the meantime, they can possess another character as a sort of advisory spirit, providing them with a limited amount of aid, and allowing the player to continue to participate, rather than go off to make the next batch of tea. BUT, if your scenario is written to be completed in a single day, then that player is left with a reduced role for that session regardless. It is probably less bitter than seeing your D&D character of five years' play die, but still, if you can only advance through death, it is a factor that needs to be considered, and is probably best addressed in scenario and encounter design.

Finally, there is the mental jump players need to make from thinking as normal player characters, to being true heroes. This is similar to a group moving from playing D&D to something more meaty like King Arthur Pendragon. PDC is about the creation of heroic legends, not a glorified fantasy Delta Force. Players have an instinct for self-preservation which, in my case, has been ingrained by over 30 years of playing RPGs. It is difficult to shake this instinct and GMs with more seasoned groups will need to be aware of this and coach their players towards these roleplaying goals.

Overall, I liked PDC and would play it again. There is a bit of a learning curve to grapple with, even for experienced gamers, but this is less to do with the complexity of the game than in its revolutionary aspects. I myself am grateful for the steer it has given me in my own thinking about my homebrew RPG.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Subterfuge reminds me of happy days playing Risk

Subterfuge is a multi-player game marketed as an exercise in strategy and diplomacy that is available as an app on, I believe, both the iOS and Android. The game feels a bit like a mash up between Mission Red Planet and Diplomacy, set on an ocean floor populated by a steampunk civilization reminiscent of that in BioShock.

Players control bases on the sea floor, and mine for the mineral Neptunium. Victory, it seems, goes to the player who is first to achieve a pre-set Neptunium score. Submarines carry drillers, the grunts of this universe, between factories and bases. They do all the digging and the fighting.

Who's Queen?

Specialists bring crunch to the game.
A queen rules over each faction and she is responsible for recruiting and promoting specialists. These are experts similar to those in Mission Red Planet. Their skills bring extra crunch to the game; they include smugglers, pirates, thieves and admirals. Some of them have scope for promotion, although I'm still getting my head around this. Like in Chess, if you lose your queen, you're out of the game.

Subterfuge is played in real-time. That means that production and the movement of submarines between bases takes place over a period of hours or days. It is designed to be played on mobile devices. Players can therefore dip into it as and when it suits them over a period of 24 hours or so. The game will, however, disqualify players if they are inactive for more than 48 hours.

There is an element of limited intelligence here: each base has a maximum sonar range. You can monitor activity at other players' bases if they are within sonar range, and receive alerts on your phone when new submarines crop up inside your sonar network. I quite like this - the use of a software platform means that you cannot possess godlike intelligence on your foes.

Subterfuge is designed to fit the long strategy game into the schedule of a busy modern lifestyle, and it does this very well. When there is no longer time to get people around a table for a day to play Supremacy or Twilight Imperium, Subterfuge is able to offer a strategy game along similar lines for a much smaller commitment in terms of time. A fast forward dial allows you to order units that will only become available in the future, when you are asleep for example!

I'm still playing in my first game. I had to solve a number of mission problems using the game before I could sign up, but these are really designed to help you to learn the basics before you get involved. In my new game there have been several other major revelations that have jeopardised my ability to win, but I'm treating this largely as a learning exercise.

An example of part of a game in action.

The developers stress using diplomacy as vital to winning, but I've seen very little of this so far. Strangely, many of the players in this first game seem keen to avoid ending the game by mining too much Neptunium too quickly, and my decision to establish a mine early in the game was treated with some shock. I've since lost the mine to another player who has promised not to upgrade production! I've consulted another player and he thinks they are trying to prolong the game.

While there is little danger of me winning, I'm not about to drop out either, as this is a valuable opportunity to test out many of the specialists and other functionality in the game. I've always been of the view that there is fun and entertainment to be derived from hanging onto a losing position just to make the lives of others more challenging, rather than simply walking away from the table. We'll see how I progress with this.

I should also mention that the aesthetics are lovely, from the undersea landscape to the portraits of specialists to the sound effects. Try typing out a message in-game to another player and it sounds like a typewriter!

Subterfuge is free to play once you have achieved Level 1 status. You can then join online games. For a fee of $10 you can upgrade, which will give you other functionality - I'm not precisely sure what yet - but also more importantly it seems you can also then set up and participate in private games with friends, rather than just in public sessions, which somehow seems even more fun.

Friday, 13 October 2017

My first stab at playing in an NFL fantasy league

Ed Dickson, currently the starting TE at Carolina
This year I have been roped into managing a fantasy NFL team in a 12 player league being administered by a friend of my brother. Although we live in England, we have been fans of the old gridiron since Channel 4 first started broadcasting a regular Sunday evening show back in about 1985. American football had fascinated me from an earlier age, however, as living in the Middle East we were able to watch college football on Saudi Aramco's TV channel.

Fast forward to 2017, and I'm stumbling into the first quarter of the season. We are an eclectic mix of managers, including Brits, Australians and Americans. I think there is a Kiwi in there too.

The opening draft was special, taking place at noon on a Saturday, in order to accommodate bedtime in Australia and breakfast in North Carolina. I ran a couple of simulated drafts in advance, but as far as I could see, there was broad consensus in terms of the players chosen. It was obvious on your turn who you should opt for.

It is unlike fantasy cricket - if you play fantasy cricket during the English county cricket season - in fantasy cricket, once you have a player on your roster, he's yours until you choose to trade him or drop him. In the Daily Telegraph's fantasy cricket league, more than one player can benefit from the same cricketer's points during a week. Also, the English cricket season is a sprawling, fragmented affair, making it hard to keep track of who is playing when unless you are extremely dedicated.

My first draft left me with what I thought was a fairly strong team, although I did end up with three quarterbacks, namely Cam Newton, Trevor Siemian and Tyrod Taylor. All three are starting quarterbacks, giving them a good prospect of scoring each week. I note also that quarterbacks are the biggest consistent points earners, so mess this up, and you can mess up your season.

My problem is deciding which one to go with. While I've got a fairly solid corps of running backs, including Devonta Freeman and Jordan Howard, I'm rotating my QBs as if they were pitchers in baseball. Newton has been regularly talked down since the season started, following on from a shoulder injury, but has become a decent performer. I suspect that Carolina is deliberately making him seem more badly injured than he really is, to out fake the other teams - will he play, won't he? You can imagine the frustration.

As I write this Newton has just netted me 22.1 points following the Panthers' loss to the Eagles. But deciding from week to week is difficult, as inevitably one of the QBs you have benched plays a blinder. That's just how it is. But is it maddening at times, when you see a possible victory slip through your fingers.

I'm still struggling a little against my competitors: going into this weekend I'm 2-3, but hoping to take myself to .500 if I can. It is another week where some NFL teams have a bye week, as was last week, which means some of my personnel are not playing. You really need to fill all your player slots for each weekend, otherwise you will likely lose. Even failing to start a kicker can cost you a game. I've been finding that my games are coming down to + / - 15 points or less, so I am well aware that you need to do all you can to make sure you have a healthy squad with a good chance of making some points.

Thus far I've had some surprises, and some canny moves. Picking up Carolina TE Ed Dickson off waivers after Greg Olsen was injured for the season was one: my fellow coaches had not picked up on the fact that Carolina would likely be forced to start him against New England in Week 4. I grabbed him and since then he has netted 7.2 vs New England, an awesome 19.2 against Detroit, and 4.9 against Philadelphia this week. Still, that's not bad for someone who was lazing around on waivers.

I'll probably report back on my progress later on in the season when I have more to ruminate on.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Why I won't be buying the new Conan RPG

A new Conan RPG is born!
The new Conan role playing game is now out from Modiphius, and I'm sure it is very nice too. A great deal of effort has been spent on coming up with something that sports fantastic artwork, and I'm sure it plays well. But I won't be buying it. As a Robert E. Howard fan, you might wonder why I'm not going to shell out for it.

Some years ago Mongoose published a d20 version of Conan, and I loaded up on those books. They were a mixed bag, but the system was easy to introduce to people already playing Dungeons & Dragons, as it used very similar rules. I can't say the interior art was very good, but I wasn't really buying it for that.

I think I've reached a point in my game purchasing habits where there has to be a very good reason to buy something. I have not bought the new edition of Call of Cthulhu yet, largely because I think 6th edition CoC does a good job, and there are also other rules systems (e.g. Trail of Cthulhu) which can do as good, if not a better job, when exploring the horrors of the Cthulhu Mythos.

A new Conan game means learning a new system before umpiring it. I have been playing RPGs now since 1984, and have absorbed an awful lot of different rules, most recently the Cypher system from Monte Cook Games. I am, however, reaching the point that I'd rather convert a setting to a rules set I know than buy a new game and a new rules package purely because a publisher has acquired a license.

I hear the guys at Happy Jack's are playing in a Star Wars campaign using Traveller, and good on them. If you know how to play Traveller, why bother buying the Fantasy Flight Star Wars games - just use an existing science fiction system and adapt it. There is SO much information available on the Star Wars universe online, you really don't need to buy new source books. I was flicking through the old Rebellion era campaign guide from West End Games a few weeks ago, and realised the vast bulk of the information in there is available online, and not only that, but much, much more. Indeed, half the fun of the Star Wars universe now is researching the obscure references, IMHO!

Back to Conan. After you have read the stories, and maybe some of the comics, you probably have a good grasp of the canon. Everything else can be filled in from either further online research, painting in the gaps yourself, or doing what Howard himself did, which is plundering real world history.

Yes, let's talk about Robert E. Howard

Conan the Valorous - meh!
I've had something of a revelation about Howard in the last few years. When I was a teen, I loved his stories, and read them voraciously, as well as all the knock offs by the likes of L. Sprague de Camp, Robert Jordan, Andrew J. Offut et al. I think I finally ran out of steam in the late 1980s with Conan the Valorous, when I realised that the general quality of the writing and story telling was going into decline.

Howard plundered from the pages of ancient history unashamedly. He was obviously well-read in history, and also produced a lot of historical novels. Many of his medieval stories have been 'converted' into Conan stories - Hawks Over Shem anyone? Oh yes. Based on historical fact. I've read up on it.

When I was 17 I was studying ancient history at school, and part of the program was to read and virtually memorise the entirety of Herodotus' Histories. Imagine my surprise when names and places from the pages of Conan jumped out at me. Yes, the Cimmerians were a real tribe who indulged in many of the same activities as Howard's Cimmerians, as were the Picts, the Kushites, and many more. What this taught me is that if you are happy freely porting historical material into Hyboria, you're on the right track.

Go beyond this, however, and the exotic locales Howard dreamed up in Texas begin to ring a little hollow once you have actually crossed the Sahara desert, walked the foot hills of the Himalayas (and almost died of altitude sickness) or jostled your way through the bazaars of Lahore or Malacca. Some of his visions are accurate, possibly poached from the pages of travel books, others, not quite so. That's not to say he should have been shooting for historical or geographical accuracy when writing his stories, but reading him now in my forties I sometimes wish he had had the opportunity to travel more widely himself, like Hemingway or Twain.

Finally, I'm reading now the complete stories of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle. Conan Doyle was a doctor and died at the age of 71. He wrote his first Holmes story, as far as I can tell, in 1887 (A Study in Scarlet). At that point he was still in his late twenties. But he was a trained doctor who had also spent time at school in Austria. As he progressed, his writing, including his Holmes tales, reflected his wider experience of people and places. Howard, on the other hand, seems to have kept himself to Texas, and wrote most of his output over seven years, between the ages of 23 and 30. Coming to his stories again, in later life, they somehow do not have the depth of scene and character that once they exhibited. Conan Doyle, on the other hand, does.

Yes, but where are you going with all this?

There are many interpretations of Hyborian geography.
This takes us back to running games in Howard's world. This is not, I think, a 'canon' world. Even the original maps were dreamed up by fans, not by Howard himself. He never imagined it as a cohesive world to the degree that Tolkien imagined Middle-earth. Yes, he made it up as he went along, and so, I would argue, should GMs. I was looking through the very substantial source book that Mongoose published for their iteration of Conan role playing on the mystic realm of Stygia. It is all very nice, and there are some useful tidbits in there, but this is not the Stygia of my imagination, perhaps not that of Howard's either. Mongoose did a good job of compiling a large amount of information on Stygia from a broad range of sources, including the somewhat suspect Marvel comics of the 1970s, but it comes across as something of a mish-mash, and not how I would want to present Stygia to players.

What I'm getting at is this - you don't really need to buy Conan source books or Conan role playing games. Take the Hyborian world at a high level - the kingdoms, the cultures, the peoples, the gods, and then make it your own. Sometimes people who play RPGs get a little too obsessive about settings. We've seen this in a recent Forgotten Realms versus Greyhawk debate on Facebook. Forgotten Realms is praised for its vast and detailed canon, which is great if you like vast canon, but frankly I don't. Greyhawk was great when it was just one boxed set. It had maps, high level details on kingdoms, religions, armies, encounter tables, and suchlike, but as a GM I had more fun dropping adventures into less detailed corners of Greyhawk or setting my own there - basically, designing the parameters myself. Greyhawk had room for the writer, just as Howard's world had room for the writers that followed in his wake.

I'm finding this difficulty with the depth and detail of Glorantha at the moment - you really can get lost in that world, particularly in areas like Dragon Pass or Pavis which have been heavily detailed over the years. Luckily, there are still parts of Glorantha that seem to have just had the bare bones sketched out, and that is how it should be!

My take on Conan then: I'm more than happy to play a character in someone's campaign, but I won't be spending a cent on the new game myself. There are just so many rich resources available online, and so many excellent rules systems in print already. I'm not a Robert E. Howard completist. I will still enjoy his stories and watch Arnie prance around on television once in a while, and all that will be enough to spark my imagination. I think that, personally, I've just reached a point where a new line of Conan RPG books fails to excite me. Sorry Modiphius.