Thursday, March 29, 2007

Years in the making; 'CottageCon 07' is nearly on!

Ask any group of mature gamers what their three big problems are and I bet these three will pop up more often than not:

1. The radical reduction in time to prepare for games - you simply cannot dedicate the same amount of time to campaign creation that you could when you were 17.

2. The headache of getting a group of people together in one place, at one time, semi-regularly.

3. Not being able to have those mammoth gaming sessions that were so prevalent when we were young. No all-nighters when you have parents evenings and split shifts to worry about.

One thing I love about my gaming group is that we have worked, over the years, to overcome these problems. The first - planning - has been mitigated by using the internet as a means for coordinating planning and adopting, to a degree, a shared burden of creativity and a penchant for shared world building. Through messageboards, emails and blogs (and admittedly some time over a pint in the pub) we put in a fair bit of collective effort for our gaming and that helps. The second - coordination - has again, come around over the years by massaging our playing style to allow a player to occassionally be missing and to embrace some flexibility in dates.

The last one - the massive session - has been the elusive one. For our group, three hours is a normal session and sometimes we manage to squeeze out an extra hour of fun for something special. The return of the mammoth session is simple a pipe dream and has been for years.

But now, fair readers, we have a solution. We may not have as much time as we used to have as kids, but we have far more money - and money can buy you time if you are creative. So, this May, as long as things go to plan, we will be going on a little holiday. A gaming holiday. A weekend away from everything else with the specific aim to game our little socks off. We've got a provisional date (Weekend of May 18th) and we have a number of possible venues (from a large caravan to a yorkshire cottage to a log cabin near Kielder). It's all coming together nicely.

I have to say, I'm thrilled at the prospect. A number of us will have a chance to flex our GMing muscles which means that some of those long lost ideas, or games of a more fringe nature might see the light of day. Hopefully we can coincide something impressive for Pendragon in the weekend as well and give it the room that it requires. Boardgames will see the light of day as well which should be fun too.

Throw in a few choice DVDs, some good wine and spirits and (because it wouldn't be us if we didn't have it) some really good homemade food and it almost has a mini-con feel to it. Almost. Maybe not a minicon - a microcon!

We've talked about it on and off for years but it looks like it will happen. CottageCon. Who'd have thought?


Monday, March 26, 2007

Review: 300

OK, how on Earth do you pick the bones out of this one? Well, lets preface it by saying that the night before I saw this, I finally, after many years, got to watch the Shawshank Redemption. This was a film that I had studiously avoided as something that is renowned as being so absolutely wonderful was bound to be crap. It wasn't - it was a mighty fine film which locked me to the screen for it's full length.

So I come to 300 and I have to say that on approaching the film I was more than a little trepedatious. I have, in the past, been quite outspoken about people who deride something just because it is popular or indeed who feel the need to pick minute holes in something like they are plucking the threads from the Kings New Clothes. 300 is made to be one of those films that will be derided and plucked. Essentially a suicide war flick it suffers from most of the audience knowing what will happen at the end and the trailer, rather than showing all of the good bits, being a rather neat condensed version of the film, like a 60 second Shakespeare. Add onto this the growing tide of 9/11-linkage bullshit that is rumbling towards the film and it is heading for a fall.

What I got was one of the most well realised visual spectacles I have seen on the big screen. Someone, somewhere, has really hammered home that there is a method to make comic adaptations look like comics and that it works. Sin City did it, Spiderman 2 did it, Superman Returns and Batman Begins did it and now 300 is all about it. The side-on representation of many of the scenes renders them in virtual 2-d, not wholly unlike the traditional greek art we see on cliched urns etc. It works really well.

The story itself is simple - and in some ways too simple - with the God King coming to crush the plucky Greeks and Leonidas going to standing in his way, against all odds. There are some side stories - the Captain and his son, the Hunchback, the reluctant Survivor, the pitiful Arcadians and the machinations of the Senate against the Kings (well fit) wife. Essentially it is, however, a case of 'next wave of soldiers/monsters please!'. At one point I had to physically restrain myself from shouting in my best Sean Bean voice 'They've got a Cave Troll!'

Looking at the criticism that the film gets, I wondering whether I'm simply being a little dim? Homophobic? In what way? Because they omitted the rampant man love in favour of some rather graphic woman love? Racist? Sorry critics but the Greeks are greek and the Persians were just about everyone else - you can't multicultural history to make it fit your holier-than-thou leftist sensibilities. Facist? Maybe...if you want to reclassify history to say that all warrior cultures who discarded the disabled were inherrently evil, then yes. However, you maybe missed out all of the other bits about fighting to defend liberty and freedom etc. as you were flagelating yourself with your well worn copy of Das Kapital?

There are some parts of the film that simply don't work - the witty 'winking at the 21st century audience' one-liners act to jolt you from your seat like a slap to any immersion that might have happened. You also need to be in the absolute correct frame of mind to let yourself drift into accepting the more fantastical elements of Xerxes entourage - but reminding yourself that this is the story of the battle as told by the Survivor as a rallying cry to his troops gives you the mental space to allow for some gilding of the storytelling lily.

There is, however, a great deal to love about this film. From a gaming point of view it adds another film to the growing lexicon of mass combat reference. Now in Pendragon when I reference a 'shield wall' everyone will know exactly what I mean! Some of the set pieces and little details within the combat were excellent. Got to love fight scenes where the shield kills as many people as the spear! I found the character of Leonidas likeable although I felt there was so much more to be done with him (and it's highly unlikely there will be a sequal...hehehe). Personally I loved the scenes back in Sparta because it undercut the classic view of Sparta being a warrior culture and illustrated that, when it counted, they were just like any other classical greek 'democracy'.

And finally, the film had what I absolutely require of a good picture - denouement. That was the payoff that mays the sacrifice of the 300 more than just the arrogant conceit of a ego-blown king. Thermopylae is one of the great 'battles against the odds' in human history, like Rourkes Drift and the Battle of Britain (and probably some non-British ones as well...) and the film paints it as such. I've had a quick scoot around Wikipedia (normal disclaimers about that as a source of accurate knowledge apply) and the film gets a great deal of the historical detail dead right.

So whats my final verdict?

As I was watching the film, I was thinking to myself - 'I should be getting more excited than this?'. I suspect that my expectations may have been a little too high for something which was a pretty simple proposition. However, in the cold light of day, I find myself endeared to what I saw more as a cinematic event rather than a rollocking good film.

300, it's good, but it's not the Shawshank Redemption! 7/10

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

A Tingling on the Palette

I had all but given up on Game Chef. Something about the ingredients and the way that the contest works just didn't sit right with me. I couldn't fire anything that was 'good enough' - every idea that I came up with was derivate of something else, or I would rather run using another system. I was generating ideas for games rather than games themselves.

It was this morning, on the toilet at work (prime thinking territory btw) that I had the smallest spark of inspiration. It ran something like this:

I was trying to work out how some of these more high concept indie games could exist alongside simple games like A Faery's Tale. One of the puzzles in the world of indie games for me has always been that the games themselves are not usually designed for extended campaign play, which in my eyes is one of the best bits of RPGing. Whilst thinking about this, it suddenly hit me that what I was trying to write was a 'proper' RPG rather than one of these head-up-the-arse indie thinking ones. EUREKA!!

Newly aligned, I could now see where my game could go. It could be something that was played over one sitting. It could have very simple mechanics. I could really have one central situation. It wasn't something that needed to be complex.

So I have my idea - using Sacred, Rose and Threads. It's a game of monastic suicide and hidden passions, guilt and betrayal. And it is played in one session.

Now I just need to write it.


Game on!


Saturday, March 17, 2007

Hell's Kitchen Opens

Game Chef has begun and well, I'm a little disappointed.

The ingredients are as follows


You select THREE from EITHER Group A or Group B.

Additionally there are no other set themes or restrictions.

You see, it's the last bit thats disappointing. In an open competition how can having an open competition be a parameter?

ANYWAY, that slight gripe aside, I now have until April 1st to realise a fully playable RPG based on this little lot. I'm leaning towards Grp A rather than Grp B but I really haven't given it that much deep pondering yet.

More later..


Monday, March 12, 2007

Cooking Up A Storm

I think I have finally got in over my head.

Browsing some of the gaming fora, I came across mention of something called Game Chef. Vaguely, in that reptilian part of my brain that remembers crap like this, I recall it being some sort of game design competition - a bit like 24 Hour RPG. I investigated a little, looked at the format and then in a fit of confidence and upward mobility, slapped by name on the 'tag in' list on the site.

I am now going to be part of Game Chef 2007!

So whats the deal. Well, on Friday the 'ingredients' will be announced. I have no idea what these could be, but it looks like it is 'choose one from list A, one from list B and two from list C' style affair. I then have until April 1st to design a game based on the ingredients. It has to be written up and everything. The games are then peer scrutinised and some will pass on to a finals and for the winner, fame and glory awaits.

In all honesty, I don't expect to get past the first stage. I highly suspect that there are a lot of people who know people within the set-up but I'm looking forward to being proved wrong. It will however be a very interesting little challenge and I'll keep everyone up-to-date on my progress.


Monday, March 05, 2007


As a young man, I was a bit different.

No, really! See, I wasn't one of those kids that simply had to see the allegedly 'illegal' copy of Evil Dead II that Paul had. Nor was I the sort of kid who used to try to get one of the older kids to get a copy of Bad Taste from the video shop. Gruesome horror was never really my thing. Indeed 'horror' - in it's current teens-in-peril style is about the bottom of my cinematic radar.

However, I have began to develop a rather curious interest in zombies and the classic zombie flicks. I'll be very specific here - what fascinates me about them is not the zombies, but rather the portrayal of the degeneration of humanity when faced with the living dead. So in the remake of Dawn of the Dead comes on, I'm there to see the man refuse to accept that his pregnant girlfriend is a zombie. To me that denial and inability to handle the terrible facts before you is true horror because it is something that can have resonance in real life. You can easily put yourself in that situation and wonder how you would react. I simply cannot do that when 'generic skinny blonde#3' decides she just HAS to go into the cellar without a torch at the dead of night....

So, when Ian recommended 'World War Z' on it was naturally going to be high on my reading list. It is, apparently, high on a number of other peoples reading lists too because getting my hands on a copy of the bloody thing has been a nightmare. The wait, however, has been more than worth it.

The premise of the book is that it is an oral history of a world wide conflict between humanity and zombies, written as a series of interviews with the survivors. It is an amazingly gripping read for a fictional non-fiction book. I've read about half of it and some of it has chilled me to the bone. One of the passages that had particular resonance was the flight of the refugees from the west coast of the US and the subsequent traffic gridlock. It told of people literally trapped in their cars, only able to sit and watch as the zombies ate their way up the traffic jam. Horrible - especially as I was in a traffic jam at the time!!!

The book has been rammed with those moments when you can, almost involuntarily, put yourself into the place of the people and wonder - what would I do? how would I react? would I be one of the people that would be saved? would I be zombie fodder? The answers are NEVER pleasant.

This I consider to be true horror and this book is truly horrific. I recommend it wholeheartedly.