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

Overthinking

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).

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Going to jinx it

Finally feel like I'm over the worst of this cold, but the last vestiges are proving difficult to shake off completely.

Had a fairly productive day at work today; a marked improvement over the first couple of days this week, spent starting blankly at a screen while my sleep-deprived brain struggled to comprehend how the internet works.

Got nothing done for Fate tonight, though. No feedback yet from my proof-readers, so nothing to tweak in the player's guide, and I think I'm as done with these first two chapters of gameplay as I'm going to be, without playtest experience.

Still have to figure out the third chapter and how to run the act finale, but letting those simmer for a couple of days is probably better than smacking my head off them much longer.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Getting real

I've been bugging my wife with campaign ideas for weeks now, but today I actually sent my campaign doc to people who haven't been directly involved in its development.

I'm kind of terrified; that I've left out a bunch of really obviously-important details that I've taken for granted; that it's riddled with spelling and grammatical errors; that the whole backstory is going to be horribly obvious (I know that at least one of them has seen the thing I'm ripping off wholesale for said backstory).

But at the same time, it's good to finally feel like it's in a place where it's ready to be seen.

I've also managed to get the first two "episodes" of the first story arc written up; the third one is still a blank so far, and the "season finale" is still just the bones of an outline, but I'm hesitant to get too deep into planning before I even know what characters my players want to be. Fate's heavy on the player story-hooks, so I don't want to leave those too late.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

No Magic, No Gods

One of the limitations I've put on this Fate campaign - really the only D&D staple that I'm disallowing - is that there is no magic in the world, and the Gods (if they exist) do not make their presence felt in daily life.

By and large that's not a major mechanical issue - you still hit things with swords the same way, and a religious character's motivations won't even change that much. It's just that his chosen deity isn't going to directly smite targets as a result.

But where it's led me to something of a dead end is in dungeons.

In your typical fantasy setting, an ancient temple or crypt is a tempting target for a PC of any alignment - magical items and the chance to slay a lich are tough rewards to pass up, whether you want to rid the world of his evil or steal it for yourself.

Without that supernatural element, it's proving difficult to find realistic non-meta reasons for these crypts even existing in the first place, let alone motivating players to bother delving into a mineshaft for the promise of... money? Being nice people?

In the end, money's probably going to have to suffice as a carrot on the campaign stick, at least to begin with. I'm hoping this experiment lasts long enough for the stakes to get raised a bit, giving the characters less self-absorbed reasons to get into the spirit of things.

Monday, February 03, 2014

I should get a move on

In my head, I've telling myself it's been "a couple of years" since I started sketching out the bones of this Freeport-spinoff D&D (and now Fate) campaign. I never really gave it much thought, though - apart from the gnawing shame that I still hadn't started it, it didn't seem to matter.

But I just noticed that I have the Freeport book in my Google Drive, with a created date of June 2010. Which turns out to be nearly a month after I originally asked Andy Law if he had a reasonable-resolution digital copy of the map to hand (the physical thing, which I've bought since, was out of stock on Green Ronin's site); turns out I still have the PM on The Society.

Three and a half years is a long time to have been putting this thing off.

Lost for words

Two things stopped me from posting yesterday.

Firstly, the cold I've been struggling with decided to properly kick my ass and I've had maybe six hours sleep in total since I woke up on Friday morning. Not conducive to writing.

Secondly, Phillip Seymour Hoffman was found dead in his apartment. I'm not one to go in for celebrity mourning, but this one hit me like a kick in the chest. Even hours later, seeing each headline and obituary and tweet felt like another kick.

(The only other celebrity death that I can remember affecting me like this was Neil Armstrong.)

I haven't seen all of PSH's work; haven't even seen some of his top-drawer stuff. I know him mostly from The Big Lebowski and Magnolia and MI:3. I've never seen Boogie Nights or Synechdoche, New York, although I'll be attempting to rectify that soon.

It seems selfish to think of his death mostly in terms of the performances and characters and films we'll never see. But that's the closest most of us ever got to him, through the honesty and vulnerability he was willing to bare on-screen.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Nope

This cold has chosen today to well and truly kick my ass, ably assisted by a totally sleepless eight hours last night.

So, have a break from my Fate ramblings.