Aug 272013
 

Giveaway-300x137Yup, you heard that right, $50 in either amazon or Drivethru vouchers, and entering the contest is simplicity itself. Put it this way, I’ve managed it twice, and it’s taken me less than ten minutes. How do you enter I imagine you asking? Well just click through the following link and you’ll get all the information you need, plus a great gaming website to peruse.

Seriously, check the site out, there’s a bunch of talented writers over there doing their thing.

Aug 262013
 

It’s been a while since the last update on the up coming Cyberpunk computer game, but since we have a new edition of Shadowrun, plus a PC game too, the interest in the Cyberpunk genre is obviously still high. With that in mind I thought I would try and capture a few important things about people in the dark near future interact with each other. The problem with that is that not every game set in a Cyberpunk world has the same values. My last game using the CP 2020 for instance didn’t really live up to the style over substance and chrome chrome chrome ethos that’s mentioned in the book. Instead it was a much darker take, with cyberware being sinister and the thought of wasting money of frivolities rather than necessities would have seemed very strange indeed.

images (1)So instead of trying to capture the feel of an entire genre, I am picking a setting that I have reviewed in the past and thoroughly enjoyed: Kuro. If you’ve never come across the game or just prefer a more traditional future noir game, then it’ worth remembering that the Japanese are currently the predominate producers of personal electronics – including computers – and robotics, which will surely set them up well to be an important culture in any Cyberpunk future. So here are a few things worth bearing in mind when dealing with the Japanese either socially or in business.

  • The business card. In Japanese culture, the business card is even more important than the calling card was to the Victorians, and has similar uses. There are very important differences though, and the devil is very much in the details. If one is handed to you, it will be while the giver is bowing towards you, presenting it with both hands. You must reciprocate this action. Bow a little deeper to show respect to the person giving you their card, and make sure you take it with both hands. When you have it, take very special care of it. Whatever you do, son’t just slip into your back pocket while the giver is still in your presence. In fact, never stick it in your back pocket, as sitting on it would be a grave insult. Keep in your wallet or in a special case for business cards until you can put it somewhere safe in an office. You see a business card is more than just someone’s contact details. It is a promise that the person will take your call, and maybe even a personal meeting. Keep all such cards safe, as you never know when it may be required to make a call to that one person who can help you out.
  • Being a Gaijin. Unless your game is particularly focused in such a way, it’s probably unlikely that everyone will be Japanese. In dealings with Japanese people, those from outside the country will of course be afforded all due respect – more on this later – but they are still outsiders, and will never have the access or acceptance that fellow countrymen will receive. never draw attention to this, instead do what you can with the help you will be given. You may never be accepted into the inner circle, but it is possible to make very good friends with individuals within said circle and get them to act on your requests.
  • Respect. By far and away the most important thing to the Japanese is respect. For elders, for superiors, for anyone deserving it, and for anyone that is newly introduced. This might seem strange to western eyes, but rather than run the risk of not showing someone the respect that they are due, a Japanese person will show a complete stranger total respect. This comes across very clearly if you walk into a Japanese store. The staff working there will treat you like royalty, bowing deeply and making sure that everything is to your satisfaction. This even runs counter the above point about foreigners in Japan, they will be also be treated exceptionally well by strangers rather than them risking offending anyone by not showing them the appropriate amount of deference.
  • Conflict Avoidance. The point on respect above ties in nicely with this one. It may sound like a lazy stereotype, but it does seem to hold up the vast majority of case; a Japanese person is likely to go to great lengths to avoid any type of conflict or unpleasantness. This means making sure that you show the correct amount of respect, always erring on the side of caution by going above and beyond what might be expected, but this desire for peace and calm runs through most day to day activities. In a working environment for example, it would be unheard of for an employee to complain about their company, coworkers, or superiors whilst at work. Outside of work though there exist a social contract that allows workers to gather together and imbibe alcohol and get all their complaints of their chests without ever worrying about the consequences. It would in fact be a massive social faux par to even bring up these grievances the next day at work.

So there we have it, a far from complete list of social guidelines for dealing with what could quite likely be a dominant super power in a Cyberpunk future. Most of the credit should go to the excellent writer and blogger Héctor García and his excellent site and book, A Geek in Japan. Most of the points in this book have been researched through reading his work, and if you have any interest in checking out more on contemporary Japanese culture, I can’t think of many better places to start.

Aug 212013
 

images

So yeah, the new Batman: Arkham Origins trailer may not be an actual play trailer (which is what I was really hoping for), but in amongst the various set pieces, there looks to be a few clips that could actually be taken from game play. There isn’t really any way to be 100% sure, but being a pretty big fan of the first two, there just seems to be moments where the camera stops following the action from a purely cinematic angle, and hangs just over Batman’s right shoulder; exactly where it spends most of the time in the previous outings. Take a look and see what you think.

I know this is a table top role playing blog, and a few of you will likely be wondering why I’m taking about a console game, but I really do like the treatment given to Gotham City’s most famous sons and daughters in the last couple of games, and a lot of that comes down to the characterisations. In game play terms, it’s little more than a very pretty beat-em-up, but the plot lines are superbly thought out, and each character is brought to life with a rare passion. Add to that my opinion that I don’t think there has ever been a more faithful adaptation of the comic books in any other media than the games, and it’s my kind of game.

I’m sure those of you who played the last game will remember the bit the Joker does during the credits, but there are plenty of times during the game that had me just as invested in what was going on. I think all of us can learn something from this level of detail put into characters in a game. And I think even Batman’s most famous nemesis wouldn’t necessarily think of himself as a bad guy. If there ever was going to be an exception to that rule though, I think the Joker would certainly qualify.

Aug 202013
 
Click through for Cubicle 7 page.

Click through for Cubicle 7 page.

As I’ve mentioned once or twice, this last month has been pretty damned hectic for me, so a few things have sadly fallen by the wayside. I have just about managed to keep regular postings on this page, but almost everything else has been put to one side until I can give the various projects I’ve taken on the time and effort they deserve.

One such thing is my attention towards the rather excellent, and massively anticipated third edition of the Steampunk role playing game Victoriana by those lovely people over at Cubicle 7. For a full disclosure and to explain why I’m annoyed that this one has taken me so long to get round to, I was sent a free copy of this book for review purposes. After hinting pretty damned heavily that I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. So sorry everyone for the delay, I know it would have been better for another positive review to be out there before Gencon, but this will have to do.

To make up for it, I’ll be doing what I did for my review of Kuro, breaking it into several bits, each being about a significant proportion of the main rule book. Today then we’ll be starting with the setting and background section, The Encyclopaedia Victoriana.

As a history nerd – seriously, check out how many articles I’ve written about historical weapons – it’s hard to describe just how much fun I had reading this section. They cover things as one would expect for an alternative history book; in broad strokes. But there’s detail in there, and a lot of it is their own, but some of the stuff they’ve put in there had me breaking out in a huge grin. I don’t want to start listing them here (there were loads of them) but they were all brilliant, and impressed me with the level of research that must have been put into this section.

I do have to point out one thing that I wasn’t 100% happy about. I know that their world is very different too ours, and that there is more to the sapient races than just humanity. I think this is a great selling point for the game, and is handled with considerably more style than I think Shadowrun ever managed. Each race – not species – has a particular place within the social landscape. The Eldren sitting at the top, with Ogres usually at the bottom (links seem to go to an older wiki that may not be up to date with the current edition, and are used only for descriptive purposes). I also understand the need to change things a bit, and that there is no reason why they should stick faithfully to something when it serves no purpose. But Napoleon was actually taller than I am, so casting him as a Dwarf was a little bit strange…

The way it’s all tied together makes for a damned entertaining read too. Historical narrative can sometimes be a bit of a pain to read if it it’s written poorly, and this is some very good writing indeed. They break things down by event, and present them as mini case studies done first hand from the point of view of a character within their world. And it such a well realised world too. Page after page for the various countries and nations that exist, and even a few that don’t, at least not in our world.

What surprised me, as I haven’t played previous incarnations of the game due to lack of opportunity, was how important religion is, and how much was written about it. They go to some lengths to make sure that the readers know to differentiate between real world religions and the “fictional”* ones that they’ve created. Although there are similarities, and it’s pretty easy to see where they’ve taken inspiration from each of the three Abrahamic faiths, along with a few others, each is different enough that it doesn’t come across as a lazy pastiche.

So far then – and you may have noticed that I’ve kept actual content to a minimum to avoid spoilers – I’m absolutely loving the book. The layout makes it pleasure to read (I do like books with fully justified margins) and the writing is top notch. This is what I’ve come to expect from Cubicle 7 though. Each and every one of their games has been great to just sit down with and devour while sipping from a mug of hot chocolate.

Next time I’ll be looking at character creation, and as such a few bits of the system too. Hopefully the gap in reviews won’t be as long as the gap between acquisition and this one, and since work has calmed down somewhat, hopefully it should be within a week. Until then, feel free to pick up a copy for yourself. In fact, if you know me at all, I’d really appreciate it, as I would love to get the chance to play this game, based on what I’ve seen so far.

* Sorry, my atheistic side comes out around now, and I struggle to think of any any religion as being anything other than fictional.

Aug 192013
 

As some of my more regular readers will know, I’m a big fan of comic book writer, and general amazing chap, Warren Ellis. As a fan I tend to find his writing pop up quite a lot in my general searches, and a few days ago a saw a quote attributed to him as part of an interview about his latest ebook short prose piece, Dead Pig Collector. The quote stuck with me, but I’ve been unable at time of writing to find the exact interview, so I don’t have a link right now. What he says, in simple terms, is that no killer ever writes themselves up as the bad guy in their own story.

No matter how deplorable they are, no matter how many innocent lives they either end or permanently affect, they all manage to do so without seeing themselves as the villain. Today then I’m going to look at a few choice villains, either from pop culture or my own games, and see how they perceive themselves. This should give GMs out there some inspiration when it comes to creating better villains for their campaigns.

The Higher Calling.

For this one you should really have already watched the flick Se7en. If not, now would be a great time to stick it on, but probably best not to have eaten much before hand. Especially not tinned spaghetti.  The bad guy in question here is called John Doe, and he believes with a powerful intensity that he’s doing the right thing when killing people. And he kills them in violent and disturbing ways. Really, this one is not for the faint hearted. But he justifies it all by convincing himself that none of his victims are innocent. True enough of the drug dealing pedophile, but the chubby guy and the pretty woman did nothing to deserve a fate as gruesome as they got.

John is a man on a mission, and although there is never a tacit acknowledgment that he believes he is doing God’s work, it is implied quite heavily. Even if we take God out of the picture though, he still thinks he has a right to these horrible things as he is telling a story and doing so in a very public way to highlight what he sees as society’s flaws and over all corruption. This goes beyond a delusion, and out the other side, becoming everything that John Doe is. Once we see that this isn’t just a way of getting attention, or a cry for help, we have to start asking ourselves why he is the way he is. I couldn’t possibly answer for this particular John Doe, but if you’re creating  bad guy with a mission, it’s worth bearing in mind.

Taking out the Trash.

So Dexter, pretty much. In that particular case we’re dealing with a psychopath that does what he can to use his impulse to kill for the greater good, but we don’t need to carbon copy the idea, and could easily do away with the psychopathy aspect entirely. But the idea that the PCs will be dealing with a brutal murderer who has a body count that staggers the imagination, but is only killing the bad guys is worth thinking about.

True, he does so in violent and ritualised ways, disposing of the bodies in such a way as to offer no closure to any of the victim’s victims, and getting in the way of state appointed justice. Would the PCs be quick to bring him in? Would they just kill him if there wasn’t enough evidence to convict, thus making themselves as bad our serial killer? Would they maybe even sympathise with hi cause, realising that he is doing the best thing he can in such terrible circumstances? Maybe the would even stop thinking of him as the villain…

The Pillar of the Community.

From what I can gather, the show Boss never did great guns state side. To be fair, not many people I’ve spoken to here in Blighty have heard of it, but I happen to think it was a powerhouse performance by Kelsey Grammer and a stellar cast. Without going into too much detail, it was a political show with the main character being massively corrupt for the entirety of his career, and only a degenerative mental illness started to slow him down. Clearly the bad guy of the piece then, but by doing what he does, he has made life better for thousands of citizens of his city.

His friends get kick backs, to his enemies he is wrath incarnate. Those he can’t silence by threatening their families with violence are quietly disappeared. And to become his enemy takes very little indeed, with even those who are his closest friends and confidants only a serious error away from being taken out of the picture. True he is almost untouchable, but even if he could be taken down, the power vacuum could be worse than leaving him where he is. Would the PCs just rush in to deal with him, or side with his enemies and engage in the kind of corrupt power plays they were trying to being to an end.

If Boss hasn’t made it onto your radar, the the truly wonderful Boardwalk Empire has a similar character played by the vastly underrated Steve Buscemi.

“I’ve earned this!”

Sadly I can’t think of anything from a movie for this one, so unless you were lucky enough to play in my Cyberpunk  2020 game last year you won’t know exactly who I’m talking about. A quick recap: a powerful man seeking more power struggles to deal with the stress of his hectic life and turns to deplorable activities. Never once does he think of himself as a bad guy though, instead justifying his actions as stress relief, no matter how much he hurts people.

It would be easier for the PCs to see this type of character as villain, but always bear in mind that he never will. The people he hurts are just collateral damage to him, and each one that falls is nothing compared to the people he thinks he will be able to help from his position of authority. They are stepping stones, and he is always careful to choose people who  will not be missed. He has no reason to justify these murders as taking out the trash, and the act of murder is a necessity for him, and a small price to pay.

I hope some of that was useful to you, and has given me some things to think about when it comes to my own villains. Especially thinking on some of  my earlier creations that were decidedly one dimensional when compared to what can be done with a ad guy. I was going to include a little bit on William Cutting from Gangs of New York, but that ended up being a larger bit of writing so may very well be a blog post all of its own in the future.

Aug 122013
 

So, anyone want to take a guess as to which movie me and the missus curled up in bed with last night? That’s right, I was on a bit of a nostalgia kick, and Big Trouble in Little China was one of the first movies I ever owned. Roughly working it out, I think in fact I was about 9 years old. One could argue that I was a bit young to be watching this flick, but it I think I turned out OK. Having seen it more times than I could easily recall, there’s always been one line that has stayed with me, and this is the title of the article. Although I’ve spent most of my research time at the moment looking into Japanese things – both for a future post here, and an article over at Stuffer Shack – I decided after watching the film one more time to see just how many hells there are in Chinese mythology.

As with all things involving mythology, there is no correct answer to this question, and a lot of answers that are out there openly contradict each other. If you have enough interest in this subject yourself, there’s plenty of writing out there, and I invite to start with our old friend Wikipedia. Since this is not an academic paper on the subject though, instead being a place that I hope some of you come to for inspiration, I will be dealing in broad brush strokes with a few ideas that come across like they could be useful in a role playing game. If you’ve ever played Feng Shui, you’ll know just what I mean.

The Hell of the Upside down Sinner. In the movie this was an underwater scene with rotting corpses chained upside down beneath the surface. A truly terrifying place to come to after any adventure that required swimming through a tunnel to escape from.

The Hell of being cut to pieces. Since the body cannot die in Hell, this one is all kinds of unpleasant. For the still living an abattoir comes to mind, the floor slick with blood that has yet to make its way to the channels cut into the floor. Discarded digits getting crushed underfoot, and rusty blades hanging from blackened chains.

The Hell of the Razor Cliff. A sheer rock face, seemingly without end. The sinners have no choice but to climb though, and every place they could put there fingers or toes conceals a razor edged blade. It could  be the cliff, it could be a mountain; it could simple be every wall of a an open topped cell that contains your enemies.

The Hell of boiling in Oil. Chambers full of  metal cauldrons, filled to the brim with boiling oil. Sinners in cages that rise and fall in random patterns, submerging them in the oil as they scream in pain. The smell of cracked and burning flesh in here wold be beyond description, only the wailing of the victims outdoing it for shear awfulness. Would you try and help anyone, or just get the hell away before you were dragged into a cage of your own.

The Hell of being fed into relentless machines. The grinder has a beginning, and each soul is fed into it kicking and screaming, but no one has yet found the end. An eternity being spent moving slowly through grinding gears and hammering pistons, the body wrecked beyond mortal endurance but still feeling everything. What mind could conceive of such a contraption, and what is their final goal?

The Hell of the Frozen Sinners. An entire world of ice, where the hatred the sinners feel for themselves has extinguished all the fires of hell, leaving a desolate frozen wasteland. Each Sinner suffers frostbite, with blackened limbs giving way to oozing puss. The closest thing to respite is to throw themselves into the icy lake where there bodies will flash freeze and shatter at the merest touch. Could there be any escape from this place, or have the sinners made it themselves?

The Hell of being torn about by animals. For every sinner in this hell, there lives 50 animals, hungry and angry, red in tooth and claw. The larger beasts run uncontrollably, hooves crushing those unfortunate to have fallen, while horns and antlers rip and rend anyone still on their feet. Snakes and scorpions bite and sting at any exposed flesh, with carrion birds hovering above, looking to peck at anyone to feeble to fight back. 

As I said above, this is just a few examples, of the tens of thousands of hells that exist in Chinese in Buddhist mythology, so please feel free to add your own. There is one very particular place I haven’t mentioned though. All those listed above, act more as a Purgatory for sinners, with the length of time spent in a particular hell the result of the nature and severity of the sin. For the most unforgivable sins there is Avīci. This is a place of continual suffering, and much closer to what westerners might think of as hell eternal. And after all that misery, the least I can do is implore to you to go and check out the inspiration for today’s post, Big trouble in Little China.

Aug 062013
 

This is a bit of an odd post from me, as I’m mainly here to point you all towards a blog written by a mate of mine. He has another, but he has recently completed a 14 part exploration of Skyrim, and written about the adventures of his character Dragonbjorn in the first person. Don’t expect much in the way of searing critical insight, expect instead a whole bunch of perfectly timed screen shots and some very funny writing indeed.

The lad who wrote this fine body of work is a friend from my local gaming society who also joined us for the latest recording of my podcast. The reason we brought him in was mainly because he just happens to be one of the funniest guys I know who doesn’t seem to realise that he is. A lot of people love being the life of the party and the focus of attention in any room – I went through a brief period like that myself – but Andy is quite and unassuming until he comes up with the sharpest replies to a conversation and stops the room dead as we as all struggle to breathe through the laughter. After that massively overblown intro, why don’t you check his blog out, and then take a listen to the latest podcast, in which we dissect movies so bad that they’re good.

Aug 052013
 

I haven’t done a weapon post in a while, because I like to bring something to the table that might not be common knowledge. As much as I could wax lyrical about basic sword fighting techniques or go on at length about my favourite kind of axe, it’s all stuff that most gamers will be familiar with. What doesn’t get that much attention though is the humble sling. I can see why, as most fantasy role playing games are set in a time period pretty similar to that of the dark ages through to the high medieval period, and at that time, slings were nowhere near as common as they once were.

There are very good reasons for this in pure historical terms, but few of them translate well to a role playing game. For instance the time it would take to become proficient with a sling was far too long. Most people who knew how to use them to full effectiveness trained since they were children. Although medieval bowmen also practiced from a young age, it wasn’t as necessary to be competent with the weapon. In game terms this shouldn’t be a big deal though, as time spent to master skills is a little bit more abstract.

In terms of using a weapon for warfare, the bow is superior as it is easier to arrange for massed ranks to volley fire. The sling, by its very nature is tricky when it comes to getting more than a handful of people to loose their shot in unison. But since standing in massed ranks firing arrow after arrow is hardly what most people would expect out of a role playing experience, this again shouldn’t be too much of an issue. Finally – before we get to the good stuff – warbows and crossbows were excellent to shoot from behind cover. They were especially good when it came to firing through loopholes in walls. Doing this with a sling is pretty much an impossibility.

Sling-1-There are a fair few excellent reasons to use the sling more in RPGs though. Firstly the range and damage of a sling – firing optimal ammunition – is at least as good as a bow and arrow. Average range is roughly 150 metres by someone without a lifetime of practice, but the world record by a skilled user is considerably longer. The velocity of a lead shot is also greater than an arrow in flight. This means that accuracy is improved as it can be fired at a slightly more direct angle rather than a large arc.

Arrows do have a slight edge when it comes to penetration though, as they have a smaller point of impact and are much more likely to pierce flesh and armour. Don’t think that I’m selling the sling short though, although a shot is unlikely to punch through armour, the can still do a massive a mount of blunt trauma damage. Based on anecdotal evidence a lead shot can punch an inch deep dent into a corrugated iron. Just imagine what that would do any flesh beneath the metal armour. You don’t need to imagine too much though, as we know from historical documents that ancient Roman army surgeons had a special set of forceps used to extract shot that was embedded into combatant’s flesh.

So, we have a ranged weapon that matches if not exceeds the longbow in terms of range and damage, and it is also a damned sight easier to make it, as is the ammunition it uses. An effective sling is made from natural fibers such as hair and flax, which is pretty easy to come across almost everywhere. Although it is time consuming to weave a sling, once you know how to it, practice will reduce the time taken to make more. And compared to the time required to make a compound bow or to treat the wood necessary for a warbow, it was really very little time at all.

As for ammunition, well basically you can just pick up something that would suffice from the ground. Any small stone will do the job, but if you can find them, stones that have been smoothed by river water are far superior as the smoothness makes them more aerodynamic. The ideal shape is not unlike an Rugby ball, as this allows the shot to sit snugly in the sling pouch, and aids in the aerodynamics by putting on spin on the shot. What you really want though is a lead shot. Because it is a denser material it will better velocity and be much more likely to cause an injury. The fact that each shot can be cast to a desired shape is also very important.

If you’re just picking stones up from the ground then each shot will need to be made differently to take into account the changes in weight and size of the stone. As mentioned above the density of the lead means that you can will do more damage when you hit, but it will also have a better range and accuracy and too. And if you want to have some fun, it is possible to cast your own personal message onto a lead shot. Historical examples include the Legion number of the soldiers loosing the shot, and some slightly sillier ideas like, “catch!”, and “beware your teeth”.

In conclusion, for a single user wanting something quick and easy to use and obtain ammunition for, the sling is pretty perfect. Maybe not ideal within the enclosed spaces of a low ceiling-ed dungeon corridor, but out in the wild, there’s a reason that they were used for centuries to hunt with.