Sunday, December 07, 2014

ToraDora! Christmas Club

Every December, there's a ToraDora! rewatch on r/anime. One episode a day, from the 6th to the 30th inclusive, so that the Christmas Eve episode aligns with the actual day.

I've seen the show through twice, but never dubbed; this year's Christmas Club is an excuse to try out the English track - though it took me longer than I should probably admit to find the audio settings on my Blu-ray copy.

From the snippets I'd heard in trailers and on YouTube I wasn't 100% sure how good it was going to be - I'm generally pro-dub, but I know that some are better than others, and shows with a strong comedy bent are particularly difficult to adapt successfully. So I had a little bit of trepidation firing up a full episode. But imagine my surprise when it turns out to be awesome. It's been a long time since I've watched a dub where the actors "clicked" with their characters this fast; it usually seems to take two or three episodes for them to really get into the swing of things. But right out of the gate, Ryuji and Taiga are spot-on - and Minori is perfect. The script's absolutely solid, too - nothing sounds forced or awkward, even the jokes flow naturally.

And it's funny, into the bargain. Not just the visual/slapstick stuff, which works in any language, but the line delivery had me laughing more than it ever did in Japanese. (Reading jokes doesn't have the same impact, no matter how funny they are.)

So I'm totally sold on the dub. It was incredibly difficult not to just marathon the entire thing to see how they did later scenes and characters (including Objectively Best Girl, Emi, whose appearance I'm really looking forward to for more reasons than the usual).

I was a bit worried I wouldn't have much to say about ToraDora on a third viewing - and second group discussion - without repeating myself, but this has given me a whole new appreciation for the show and the characters.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Yokosuka, 1986

The weather in Yamanose on November 29th, 1986 is how Ryo Hazuki refers to the day his father was murdered.

He doesn't even mention his father to anyone but Ine-san and Fuku-san. When anyone else brings up "the day it rained", he insists he's okay - before immediately demanding clues for his quest for revenge. His sights are fixed so firmly on revenge - on Lan Di, then sailors, then the Chi You Men, then Hong Kong and beyond - that his father fades away behind the anger, only taken out to be used as a key to unlock otherwise closed doors on the road to vengeance.

After Hazuki-sensei is killed, he only appears twice, in semi-secret flashbacks triggered when you inspect a bowl of carrots or the cherry tree outside the dojo. It's not long before the only person still thinking about Iwao Hazuki and what he might have wanted is Ine-san. He'd have wanted you to take over the dojo, she insisits. She's probably right.

But every step Ryo takes after he wakes up, three days after the rain, takes him away from the spot where his father died. Away from the places and people that might force him to accept and move on from his loss. Every discovery, each clue about Iwao's past - the mysterious key in a desk drawer, the basement behind a hidden door and all the artifacts in it - should give Ryo pause, cause him to consider who his father used to be, and who he decided to become. At the very least, it should surprise him.

But any curiosity is burned away by the need to move forward, to move away from the loss and the responsibility he's been left with. Every attempt by Fuku-san, Ine-san or Nozomi to get through to Ryo is either twisted to help his need to run away or regarded as a hurdle to be overcome.

And what's he going to accomplish, in the end? We're probably never going to find out, at this point - the saga ends in a cave in China, with Ryo really no closer to the answers - or the revenge - he was looking for.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Fourteen shows

Revolutionary Girl Utena

This anime season might be the death of me. I don't think I've ever tried to keep up with this many new series' at once; even back when I was reviewing new releases, they'd come in four- or five-episode chunks on a DVD every couple of months, which doesn't require anything like the same kind of brain real estate to keep track of.

But I have, at the moment, fourteen shows in my Currently Watching section on MyAnimeList. Disclosure: only twelve are currently airing, and I've not actually started three of them yet. The rest are between two and four episodes into their run, which is usually the point where I start culling shows - but so far they all seem like keepers, to some degree.

And someone's asked me about Akame ga Kill - which I didn't bother with last season, but now I'm wondering if it's worth a try...

Currently airing

Amagi Brilliant Park (3/13) is from Kyoto Animation, famous for moeblob trash like K-On!, and author Shoji Gatoh of Full Metal Panic! fame. It follows a cast named mostly after American rappers (the male and female protagonists are Kanye West and 50 Cent, respectively) trying to save a theme park that's actually a mechanism to harvest positive energies for powering a magical kingdom in an alternate reality. It's not as funny as it seems to think it is, with a lot of its humour falling a bit flat for me, but it looks great - expect nothing less from KyoAni - and the characters manage to carry off the surreal story remarkably well.

Danna ga Nani wo Itteiru ka Wakaranai Ken (3/13), or I Don't Understand What My Husband Is Saying, is based on a 4-koma manga about a normal office worker and her shut-in otaku husband, who makes a living as a blogger. It makes fun of the stuff that geeks accept about our hobbies, but never feels mean-spirited. Also, if this doesn't convince you to give DannaKen a look then nothing else I say will ever convince you.

Denki-gai no Honya-san (3/12) is a slice-of-life show revolving around the employees of an Akihabara doujinshi store. It has a similar attitude to nerd culture as DannaKen, but coming from the retail perspective it peeks behind the curtain a little into how these kinds of stores operate. The cast is universally likable and quite varied in personality, history and appearance, and it's got just enough shipping fodder to satisfy, even if it's unclear at this point where any of it's going.

Gundam: G no Reconguista (4/?) hooked me in seconds, with its gorgeious retro designs and animation. I'd initially thought there was no CGI in the show at all, but rewatches of the first episode dashed that misconception pretty effectively. Still, the 3D is kept to a minimum, and so far none of the actual mecha action has been anything but hand-drawn 2D. The story is a bit more sloppy and convenient at this stage than I'd like - I'm already predicting the shifting alliances, not that either side seems particularly bothered about keeping enemy combatants away from their tech. I'm hoping it tightens up a bit soon, but hinestly it's such a joy to watch that I'll stick with it to the end anyway.

Log Horizon 2nd Season (2/25) is a disappointing continuation of the excellent first season. With animation duties transferred from Satelight to Studio DEEN, existing character designs have changed subtly but entirely for the worse, and a couple of the new female characters are much more predictably "anime" than really suits the established aesthetic. The pacing has seemed off for the first episodes as well, with less emphasis on Shiroe's genius-level manipulation of various parties, but the plot has been more combat-oriented so far so hopefully it'll get back on track. I'd like to see more of the old cast as well - Akatsuki has been almost entirely sidelined, especially disappointing as she was woefully underserved by the first season.

Ore, Twintail ni Narimasu. (2/12) is this season's strongest contender for "Dumbest Plot That Might Just Work". Officially translated as Gonna Be The Twin-Tails!!, the show is about a high-school student with an obsession with/fetish for twin ponytails who is given a bracelet that will let him battle alien invaders determined to steal all the twin ponytails from Earth. The bracelet also turns him into a girl (with twin ponytails, natch), though it's disappointingly lacking an elaborate magical girl-style transformation sequence. The most important thing I can say about this show is that it doesn't give a fuck what you think. It's here to have fun, and nothing is going to stop it. It helps its case by being genuinely hilarious in places, and while its innuendo occasionally oversteps the mark it's usually moved onto something else by the time you'll notice anyway.

Shigatsu wa Kimi no Uso (2/22) is almost certainly going to destroy me. School romance shows about musicians rarely end well, and while I don't expect this to go full White Album 2 on us, Your Lie in April is shaping up to be a total heartbreaker. Aided by gorgeous animation, great music and an unexpectedly thrilling first-episode reference to Laputa, I'm hooked.

Shingeki no Bahamut: Genesis (2/?) is a weird one. With a visual style somewhere between Attack on Titan and Space Dandy, a main character who acts like a cross between the latter's eponymous hero and Cowboy Bebop's Spike Spiegel, and a tone that just barely holds together between the action, drama and comedy, it's going to take a lot more episodes before I can decide how I feel about it.

Shirobako (2/?) is about five women who met in their high school's animation club and now work in the anime industry. A number of characters are inspired by real anime directors, composers and producers, and repeated in-universe conversations about one near-disaster seem to be references to actual production problems on Girls und Panzer. It's hard to see what the long-term plot goal is for the show; I'm watching it almost like a documentary about anime production, and the names and job titles that pop up on-screen when a character first appears seems to suggest that's the intention.


Nisemonogatari (1/11), the second part of the lengthy *monogatari franchise, is proving difficult. I persevered with the (deliberately?) obtuse Bakemonogatari mostly for its cinematic flair, but starting Nise, I'm not sure how much longer I can put up with the unnecessarily-wordy plot digressions, creepy fanservice and frankly unappealing main characters. If it had a better long-term story I might be convinced to stick around, but honestly it might have to go. It's been weeks since I last watched an episode.

Shoujo Kakumei Utena (14/39) has been on my "to watch" list for literally years at this point; seemingly almost as influential on the industry as Evangelion, if nowhere near as successful commercially, I've got something different than I was expecting so far. I mostly wasn't prepared for the humour (or the rodent sidekick), and I think I expected more to be made of Utena's princely aspirations. There's been more filler than I anticipated too, although with a 39-episode runtime I guess they can afford momentary diversions. Still, I watched eight episodes in a row last night, so it must be doing something right.

Not started

I'm going to try Girlfriend (Kari) despite its dumb name and dating-game origins because I saw it described on Reddit as a harem show without the male character at the centre, which has intrigued me. I don't know what's going to set it apart from slice-of-life shows in that case, but I guess I'm going to find out.

Inou-Battle wa Nichijou-kei no Naka de, or When Supernatural Battles Became Commonplace is about a highschool literature club who are given supernatural powers, but nothing else about their lives has changed - there's no world-ending threat to defeat. That sounds like an interesting enough setup to give it a couple of episodes.

Based on a long-finished manga and with a plot synopsis that sounded like shonen tedium, I was pretty certain I'd just give Kiseijuu: Sei no Kakuritsu (Parasyte -the maxim-) a miss, but I've seen enough buzz about the series - and the seventeen-year-old beatboxer who provides foley sfx - I've been intrigued.

Friday, October 03, 2014



"If it sees you," our instructor states bluntly, "you're already dead".

We file into the next room. I pick up the flamethrower as instructed - it only has two shots, but while it won't kill her it will scare her off temporarily. I scour the cluttered crates for anything else that might be useful, finding nothing, and open the door.

Steam and flame pour from exposed pipes; the station is full of noise and movement that distracts and startles. My first instinct is to hide, and I obey it.

I pull up the motion tracker: no contacts. This doesn't really reassure me.

The objective marker pulls me to the left, but as I round the corner the lights cut out and I stop dead. The motion tracker shows a single blinking dot moving towards me. I panic and start making my way down a nearby corridor - a dead end.

I stuff myself into a small locker, my heart beating so strong and so fast that I can feel it in my hands. The motion tracker still shows movement to the left, but from my cramped perspective at the end of a corridor I can't see—

She's there.

I hold my breath. She snarls. She starts to move away. When I think I have space, I move out of the cupboard, inching my way closer to the most dangerous thing I have ever laid eyes on as every fibre of my being screams to get back in the cupboard.

She moves behind a stack of pipes but I can still see the spikes on her back, silhouetted against the warning lights. I check the tracker again to make sure she's not moving.

When I focus back on the room, I realise I've lost sight of her.

Cowering behind cover, I keep staring at the tracker for signs of movement. A ping, much too close. I start to move backwards, trying to get a fix without giving my own position away.

She has her back to me.

I glance behind, and see a door. I can make it if I run, I think.

I stand up and sprint. I don't know how close she is, but the thump thump thump of her feet on the steel floors terrifies me. I smack the door release and run through in a blind panic. I turn around just in time to see her secondary jaw shoot out, into my face, and everything goes dark.

I was so scared I'd forgotten about the flamethrower.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Counter Spy

"What kind of spy agency makes its agents buy their own equipment?" I wonder, as I run out of bullets for my diplomatic pistol. I'm pinned down by enemy fire in a Cold Ware missile silo somewhere in Russia, low on health and ammo, and dangerously close to raising the Socialist DEFCON level again.

I spot one of the guards reaching for his radio and pop out of cover, taking the headshot as well as several machine gun rounds in the chest. As my agent collapses, launch codes are entered and the countdown begins: I have 60 seconds to save the Moon from nuclear apocalypse.

Despite its whimsical visuals, bombastic score and joking plotline, Counter Spy is not a game to be taken lightly. A momentary loss of focus on my part has increased tensions between the rival Imperialist and Socialist sides in this atomic stand-off, and although the situation is usually recoverable I find my desperation kicking in and overriding the measured approach I know is necessary to save the world moon.

Missions carried out against each side can lower their DEFCON level, if you find and "convince" an Officer to reduce it, but more often than not I've used that extra breathing space to relax, immediately removing my advantage. Sneaking around and taking out guards one at a time is the usually the safest approach, but get one too many stealthy headshots and I start to feel invincible - a misconception the enemy guards are all to eager to dispel.

But later levels throw so many guards at you together that stealth isn't always viable; breaking out the shotgun can be necessary but messy - better to drug a Specialist and have them do your dirty work.

When everything is going to plan, Counter Spy makes me feel like a top-tier operative: efficient, deadly and unseen. The only problem is, I'm none of those things.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Giant Bomb

Disclaimer: I don't read Giant Bomb. I've got an account, but their aggressively American approach and labyrinthine forums have always combined to produce a community that I find difficult to immerse myself in*.

They recently hired a new writer, and there's been some disappointment expressed on Twitter that it's another white guy. The Giant Bomb community has rallied to the site's defence, and their general argument appears to be, under a lot of bile, that New White Man is a good fit with the site's established editorial style and humour.

I also understand that these places hire people they know, and it's a fact that white guys are higher-profile in the games industry and enthusiast press, as a rule, than any other combination of race and gender. So it makes statistical sense that a bunch of white guys running a videogames website would know and hire another white guy.

But I have difficulty accepting either of these arguments as good enough.

If you care about the quality of opinions and writing, then a different voice than the ones you're already getting can only be a good thing. I already know how white guys feel about Call of Duty. Give me a new perspective.

The statistics are harder to argue with, bit the weakness in that argument is the assumption that Giant Bomb couldn't have possibly found any women or non-white men to hire at all. It would have been harder to find that voice, maybe, but if we really want a more diverse, inclusive industry - and if you don't, I'm afraid we can never be friends - then the established networks like Giant Bomb have to be prepared to put your legwork in.

That they didn't think this effort was worth it - I'm not sure if that's better or worse than the thought never occurring at all - speaks volumes about their (lack of) commitment to improving the industry they're part of as well as the one they cover.

*And I'm a straight white guy, their target audience. I am only imagine how daunting an experience that place must be for women or non-white users.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Dark Arisen: Fantasy Cardio

Not pictured: Dragon, cowardice

I'd like to say I was minding my own business when the dragon landed on top of me, but that wouldn't be fair to the goblins I was slaughtering at the time.

I experienced a brief moment of panic when its nine-part health bar appeared at the top of my screen, which was replaced with a mixture of dismay and terror fewer than ten minutes later. Even after grabbing onto the beast and climbing up to cut open it's chest, exposing its heart, I hadn't made a dent.

So I ran away.

I don't know why fleeing from an overpowering enemy is so refreshing in Dragon's Dogma. I'm sure other games, especially in the open world genre, have given you the option.

Maybe it's the fact that your pawns - user-generated AI companions - won't take the hint immediately, continuing to hack away at the colossus in front of them for a moment, before they notice that their master has legged it.

Maybe it's the sense that you've just barely escaped by the skin of your teeth, your health and inventory empty and your stamina gone, but still in an unfriendly wilderness many inhospitable miles from the nearest inn.

Or maybe it's the infrequency and unpredictability of the encounters. You can be happily exploring for hours, cutting through bandits without incident or a serious challenge. The map is slowly uncovering, and you spot a castle on the horizon.

"That doesn't look too far," you think, "and the enemies here are pretty easy. I'll just take a look."

Then out of nowhere comes a winged shadow, chewing through your companions and health potions with equal ease and speed, and your only option is an exhilarating retreat down any path that doesn't have a griffon at the end of it.

Monday, April 14, 2014

New season anime

When KILL la KILL, Log Horizon and Golden Time ended a couple of weeks back, I was staring at the upcoming season of shows, unable to figure out which, if any, of these series' I'd bother with. It's incredibly difficult to judge anime by its cover (or a short synopsis) because so many of them sound so cliche.

Fast forward to today and I've started seven new shows. I don't think all of them are going to last the season, but they've all done enough so far to keep me at least interested. The highlights so far have been Mekaku City Actors, Akuma no Riddle and One Week Friends, although both are running a fine line.

Only the first episode of MCA has aired so far, but it's got a really intriguing undercurrent that I can't quite put my finger on. It's all questions and no answers so far, and the Tumblr frenzy it's inspired over the months leading up to its release gives me pause. Still, it's visually arresting and the characters introduced so far aren't too offputting, plus the flash-forwards(?) and other assorted weirdness will keep it on the list for a while.

One Week Friends is a lot more predictable: it's going to be this season's feel trip. The plot - a girl forgets her friends at the start of each week, but one classmate determines he's going to befriend her anew each Monday - isn't logically sound, but it's a joy to watch when it's not heartbreaking. It's going to destroy me, but I think I'm going to love every second anyway.

The premise of Akuma no Riddle is horribly cliche, and its execution, if you'll forgive the pun, doesn't inspire a whole lot of confidence, but I've really liked the two episodes I've seen so far. By far the biggest thing it's got going for it is the near-total absence of fanservice (apart from the regrettable OP sequence), which is especially surprising in a show about teenage assassins in an all-girls high school.

Still, the World is Beautiful is a fantasy shoujo series, which is either going to be incredibly good or disappointingly awful depending on how the relationship between the protagonists develops. Nike, the fourth princess from the Principality of Rain, has been nominated by her sisters to travel halfway across the world to marry the Sun King, a power-mad dictator who also happens to be just a child. It's difficult to see how romantic they can make this relationship considering the age gap, but it would also be weird to see it as maternal (especially considering she's legally his wife?).

On the chopping block, much to my surprise, is Studio Bones' mecha epic Captain Earth. Its dialogue is offputtingly dense without actually achieving any exposition, and the various layers of coming-of-age drama, corporate conspiracy and intergalactic war haven't gelled for me yet. It looks stunning, which shouldn't be unexpected considering the studio, but it's not clicking.

Likewise, Brynhildr in the Darkness is feeling a bit frustrating. Faced with a prediction of his death (from a transfer student who may or may not be a deceased childhood friend), our protagonist... tries to fulfil it in order to disprove the concept of fate? I don't really understand what his motivation was. This one comes from the writer behind Elfen Lied, so I'm not expecting great things.

The last show on my menu is Ping Pong The Animation, which is surely the weirdest-looking on the schedule. It seems, from the first episode, to be a pretty basic sports anime, but the visuals alone have intrigued me - they've got to be pretty confident in the story to have such offputting character designs and sloppy - but incredibly energetic - animation. I don't expect it to chart new territory, but fingers crossed it'll keep things interesting enough to be worth the bandwidth.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Dark Clay

I started writing this post at 22.47 on the 7th of February, 2013. It's probably the most personal thing I'll ever post on the internet, and is undoubtedly a rambling mess, but if I don't post it now I never will.

Background, part one:

I stumbled onto Levi Weaver on a once-great music site called TheSixtyOne. I can't remember exactly when - it must have been between 2008 and 2010 - but the song was Family Feud, "an old west song about murder". (At the time, I described it as the kind of song Nick Cave would write if he knew how to keep it under seven minutes.) I've been a fan ever since.

Background, part two:

I describe myself as a "lapsed atheist". I went through a period thinking I was atheist, but eventually realised I took it for granted that I didn't believe, without ever really examining what that meant any more than I'd ever thought about what God's existence would mean when I accepted that, growing up.

There's a statement that I remember using years ago in arguments with creationists, who questioned the evidence of a "missing link" in the fossil record: "absence of proof is not proof of absence". Meaning, just because we haven't found the evidence doesn't mean it's not out there, somewhere. It only struck me recently how deeply ironic that sentiment is in an argument about faith in science versus belief in a deity.

In the last few years, I started actually thinking about what I believe. I was still, when pressed, identifying myself as atheist at the time, but part of a Levi Weaver song, Sick, or Determined kept sticking in my head, and it was bothering me.

And part of what it means to be a man is to believe in something grander than his hands can hold / Faith and love are evidence of something more than circumstance / Of work beneath the skin and bone / The logical, the monotone / I can't explain, but still I know / Someday I will figure you out

I trust in empirical evidence and science. Our ability to observe, understand and extrapolate from our surroundings has been fundamental to our progression from roaming hunters to agrarian societies to industrial nations.

But part of the great attraction of the scientific method is that sense of trying to comprehend something that's outside our current understanding. Even if we don't have a law or even a solid theory to explain a phenomenon, that doesn't stop scientists (or amateur enthusiasts) coming up with best guesses and hypotheses.

And part of what it means to be a man is to believe in something grander than his hands can hold

If you don't believe that there's more out there in the universe than our current observations and theories explain, why keep searching? Why invent new technology if what we have is good enough? You have to believe in something better than - or maybe just different from - what we already have.

Then Levi Weaver got into my crisis of doubt again: I read this blog post, the name of which I've shamelessly stolen for this one. I recommend reading it, whether you're a believer or not1.

What resonated with me was that, even though he's starting from a position that's the opposite of mine - he assumes that there is a God, and I assume that there is not - I could identify almost exactly with every fear and question and hope expressed in that post. The belief in the existence of a God that you can't prove was an earth-shattering moment of clarity for me. I had always assumed that people with Faith have an unshakable certainty, that it gives them answers and stability the way Real Atheists get certainty and stability and answers from their Not Faith. I always felt like I was stuck in the middle, unsure and unconvinced by either argument.

I don't know why, but it's given me a lot of comfort to know that there isn't a simple answer, that faith alone doesn't dispel the sense that you're aimless, confused, unfinished. I have tried to seriously consider the possibility that there is a God. That's kind of embarrassing to write, somehow - like an admission of failure, and I'm sure I know people who would see it as such.

But I don't think it's a failure to try something new, to look at things from a different perspective, even if it doesn't work out. I don't think it's a weakness to believe that human beings are ultimately spiritual as well as physical creatures. I have to believe - I can't not believe - that there's more to us, and to the universe, than meets the eye.

The second guiding light in my confusion was Yoda.

Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.

Honestly, I don't think I'm any closer to a firm position on this stuff either way than I was before Levi Weaver gave me this stuff to think about. But more stimuli and additional points of view can only give us a broader perspective. I cannot thank him enough for provoking my thoughts with his words and music and the honesty with which he writes about his relationship with his own faith, because it's made me re-examine my own and, I believe, has made me a better, more thoughtful and more tolerant human being for it.

I do feel the need to point out that there is, in my mind, an important distinction to be made between faith and religion. A lot of atheists seem to conflate the two, but while I do find the dogma of religions troubling, it seems unnecessarily cruel to attempt to rob people of a belief that can give them such strength to overcome difficulties and inspiration to achieve great things.

1 I'd also recommend this and this, by the same author.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Revisiting Evangelion

My most recent exposure, before today, to the Evangelion franchise was the third Rebuild film. I'd watched the first two movies the day before, but even still 3.0 struck me as almost certainly intended to frustrate or anger the show's fans.

I thought it was okay, but it felt kind of pointless and meandering, with what little plot it has dedicated to further obfuscating the already-vague mythology.

Last night I got the other to rewatch the TV show - my third viewing ever and the first in six or seven years - and with my wife out of town and no other plans I figured I'd try to blitz all 26 episodes in a day.

Turns out it's not that difficult.

The early episodes, basically everything pre-Asuka, always stuck in my head as being quite dull, but I really enjoyed them this time through - even the one with JetAlone in it. It's easy to forget, with the shows reputation as a trippy, psychotic self-analysis, that the beginning of the show is so normal.

The slide into darker themes is slower than I remembered, and there's also more foreshadowing than I've ever given the series credit for; it actually felt much more coherent than I expected.

I was in two mind on whether to finish with the original ending or switch out to End of Eva, but in the end I stuck with the TV show. I'm glad I did; I was surprised to find that I reinterpreted the finale in a substantially different way than I ever had before. I'd always felt like the "congratulations!" at the end of the series was an obviously different ending than EoE, but now I'm not so sure.

I still prefer the upbeat TV version - EoE is just too dark, especially coming on the back of over an hour of suffering.

It does make me wonder, though - what is the final Rebuild installment going to change?

Monday, March 10, 2014

- - - -

Personal circumstances for two of our regular(ish) RPG group members have changed, and they probably won't be playing with us for a while. The situation sucks for them, and I feel bad that this is my initial reaction: I'm never going to get to run this fucking Fate game.

I've got the rule book, I've got the dice, I bought stuff to use as Fate point counters, I'd got to the point where I felt like I had enough grasp of the mechanics and I had even accepted that I'd have to let go of the story reins enough to actually run a session, and now it looks like I don't have the people to play it with.

There are probably other people I could draft in to fill slots, but I was really looking forward to playing it with this group. I was looking forward to seeing what they'd do, how they'd approach their characters and the world, and how they'd screw up my plans in retaliation for all the times I was difficult or awkward or a pain in the ass when they were running games.

It all feels oddly pointless without them. It's been a few weeks since they were able to make it to our sessions at all, and now that they might not be able to come back (for another while, anyway) I realise that I've missed them quite a lot. I wasn't writing any of this stuff particularly for individuals, but I was writing it for that group.

It would feel oddly like a betrayal to play it with anybody else.

Monday, March 03, 2014

30 years of back story

Reading the first Captain Marvel trade this evening, I think I've finally figured out my problem with Marvel comics.

I've always described it rather flippantly as having to know decades of history about characters, most of which has been tweaked or ignored or retconned several times over that period.

But really the problem is not knowing what bits of the story I'm supposed to already have an understanding of, and which bits will get explained in this book eventually.

If there's an allusion to a character's past in Saga, I know that it'll be explained later if it's important. But in Captain Marvel, I don't know if I'm supposed to know Helen Cobb already. The stuff that happens with her in the book is pretty reliant on you believing the relationship she has with Carol Danvers; I'm not certain this volume self it enough, but maybe there have been other comics previously that build their friendship/rivalry into something bigger.

The back of the volume has a four-page character backstory, but it's given no timeline for context. There's decades of character development with the XMen, SHIELD and the Avengers, and although not much of that is essential to understand what's happening in this story, there's a constant gnawing reminder at the back of my brain that I'm missing something.

Thursday, February 27, 2014


Not updated in a while because all I've had to talk about is Fate, and I'm pretty sure that was getting boring.

So, of course this'll be another Fate post.

I've been thinking about the campaign too long. I'm starting to second-guess every aspect of it. The "no magic" rule is close to being scrapped because I'm liking the idea of paranormal elements (specifically, the broader scope for encounters); I'm considering either expanding the playable races to include more options, or stripping it back to just humans; there's a possibility to update the technology more to allow airships, although I still want to avoid cars so that could be difficult.

And all of this is having the knock-on effect of making me question the entire backstory I've written, and the broader narrative I was thinking of telling within the campaign.

Of course, a large part of Fate is to do with collaboration between the GM and players, so maybe it makes more sense to bring a certain set of ideas to the table and let the others add or expand with their own ideas and characters.

Part of this self-doubt probably comes from the realization I had last week, that I shouldn't be trying to come up with endings for the scenes I was writing. Trying to predict outcomes in a tabletop game isn't just pointless, it's a waste of time and runs the risk of railroading your players. I've instead just come up with the setup and characters - who they are, what they want, and where they are - with the hope that my understanding of, and ability to explain, the rules will allow things to flow more naturally.

That leads me, of course, into a position where the PC-level elements of the plot aren't predictable, which is where my lack of faith in the narrative I was originally thinking of.

Really, what this boils down to, is that I desperately need to sit down with the group and talk about this thing. A couple of our regulars have been unwell the last couple of sessions so there've been boardgames with stand-ins instead. But I don't want to start talking about this game when a. we're all in the middle of learning a new game and b. there are people there that I don't know and won't be playing Fate.

I really just need to get the game started before I lose all enthusiasm.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Testing Fate, Part 2: Combat and Socialising

I need better Aspects.

I need to be more active in compelling Aspects, and explaining why.

I need to remind players about Aspects, and about compelling them, and about using their own Aspects to improve (or replace) rolls.

I need to fill out the NPCs I've got, and I need to either write more encounters, or get better at making things up on the spot.

We played through the opening scene(s) of the game on Tuesday night, and the rest of what I'd written so far tonight. I think it went pretty well, overall - everyone seemed to get into the swing of things by the end, although my poor explanation of some of the less-obvious mechanics (which, for a group mostly used to 4e, is all of them) led to the list of necessary improvements above.

Combat flowed okay, but the bad guys were almost universally too easy (both in physical and mental combat); the players were surprised at how easily they dispatched the first set of enemies - with the exception of their leader, whose escape was laughably easy. I should have explained the concept of Conceding a conflict, and the other enemies should have been capable of absorbing more shifts before dropping. An all-minion mob makes for some epic hits, but rather a low-peril encounter.

Tonight's scenes ended up being a lot more socially-focused than I'd envisaged; after taking out one bad guy, a player managed to talk the other two down - a scenario I hadn't adequately planned for. I should have had a better idea of what they know and would be willing to say.

I ended up having to change a bunch of details on the fly, even to the point of retconning conversations and inserting player knowledge they didn't actually get to have the rest of the evening to flow smoothly, but everybody was aware of the beta nature of this playtest so it worked out okay.

I have even more notes tonight than I did previously, and a whole bunch of things to improve (as well as a massive gap in the story that's yet to be filled in), but I was a lot more comfortable and confident running the game tonight than I had been at the start of the week.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Testing Fate, Part 1: Character Creation

Last night was my first attempt playtesting the opening encounter from my Fate/Freeport game, as well as my first time running a session in the system with a party (I'd previously run through a single fight with Catherine just to see it in action).

It's been four years since I last ran a game of any sort, and I'd had the benefit of playing in a few 4e games before that to familiarise myself with the system. This was 90% an entirely new experience.

Character creation is a huge part of the Fate mechanics, more so than any other game I've played. The emphasis on narrative and your relationships with other (N)PCs is possibly even more important to the character you're building than the Race/Class decisions from 4e.

The liberty that Fate offers in its character building was one of the major attractions for me when I decided to start putting a game together, but it's also a paralysing blank slate for players (and DMs) familiar with more structured systems.

Boiling your character's backstory simple but flexible Aspects is a difficult thing to explain, but fortunately once we'd sat down and talked through the characters everyone seemed to catch on quickly.

(My primary issue with the Fate Core rulebook is its lack of general, informative examples; everything seems to be presented as more of a case study, sometimes too specific for widespread application.)

Skills were easy enough to fill in, although some of the players still haven't completed a full pyramid. I'm wondering if knocking the peak down to +3 instead of +4 would help - having to pick a full set of 10 skills is overwhelming, especially if you're new to the whole system and can't envisage how you're actually going to be interacting with the world and its inhabitants.

Stunts, even more than the other parts of the character sheet, are an overwhelming element for someone used to just picking Powers out of a list. Even the limitations given for defining Stunts - which can be reduced to "using a skill in a new way, which you can do sometimes, but not all the time, and not too powerful, but it should be worth taking" - are frustratingly vague, and it puts a lot of responsibility on the GM (and other players) to rein in power creep and improve on weak Stunts.

I'm still not an entirely confident Fate GM (after only one session that's hardly surprising) but I do feel a bit better about how to guide players in the right direction when building characters.

The main takeaway from last night's character creation and the opening encounter (which I'll be writing about more fully tomorrow) is that I need to do more to encourage players and offer better examples. If I'm running this game I need to be knowledgable enough to lead the party to effective Aspects and Stunts (and do a lot more to demonstrate their use in the game itself).