Tuesday 26 October 2010

Me me me

I couldn't partake in the 15 games in 15 minutes thing because, really, I don't think I could actually even think of 15 games off the top of my head. But Scott has started a newer and more relevant-to-my-interests meme (10 fantasy books you would take to a desert island, no more than one by a single author) so hey, why not? Mine would be, in no particular order:
  • Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber omnibus edition.
  • Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun omnibus edition.
  • Vance's Tales of the Dying Earth omnibus edition.
  • Tolkien's Lord of the Rings omnibus edition (noticing a trend here?).
  • China Mieville's The Scar (not an omnibus edition).
  • M. John Harrison's Viriconium omnibus edition.
  • George R. R. Martin's A Clash of Kings. (I can't go with the entire Song of Ice and Fire to date, and I think the second one was probably my favourite volume so far...)
  • John Grant's The Sacrifice of Ruanon. (Probably my favourite "young adult" fantasy book.
  • Terry Goodkind's Wizard's First Rule. (People complain about this series but I've only read the first volume and thought it was rather good, actually.)
  • C. S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia omnibus edition.
What? Including omnibuses (omnibi?) is cheating? Well I'm fucked if I'm going to decide which single volume from each one I'd take - you think I have all day?

All Zombies on the Eastern Front [Session 1]

There was enough interest expressed in my post on prepping my current campaign that I thought I'd give a heads up on how the first session went: Swimmingly. (It was two weeks ago, though, so my memory is getting hazy... And the next session, incidentally, is booked in for three weeks from now - the joys of trying to find time to game in adulthood, eh?) A good time was had by all, mainly because I think all the players really bought the concept; for whatever reason the right tone of gritty realism and slightly pulpy adventure was struck from the get-go. I started things off in media res (with the PCs escaping from a prison train heading into Siberia which a pair of IL-2s were mysteriously attacking) and I'm glad I did, as the momentum just flowed from there and didn't really let up for the rest of the session.

Cyberpunk 2020 works fantastically well for a gritty WWII game, as its sheer deadliness when shorn of its rules for armour and cyberwear makes combat genuinely terrifying. (A rifle bullet is guaranteed either to kill or render hors de combat with a single hit, not to mention a 12.7mm round - and given that any competent soldier can score easy hits at 200 yards with a Mosin-Nagant, firefights are incredibly short and brutal.) Suspecting this would be the case in advance, I came up with a system whereby the players had at least some sort of control over their own destiny (a primitive "save" feature, really) - at the start I gave each of them a number of cards corresponding to their luck score from a doctored deck composed entirely of 3s, 4s, 5s, Jacks, Kings, Queens and Aces; they could then play these at any time to get various 'lucky' results (a 3 allows you to add 3 to a single dice roll; a Jack allows a single re-roll; an Ace allows you to reduce the damage of a single hit to 1, etc.). Two of them were forced to rely on this to save their characters from death at various stages.

Yet the speed and lethality of the combat didn't result in anticlimax-style fights. Quite the contrary; things built to a natural climax in which the PCs were gunning down NKVD men in a race against time before one of the enemy reached a half-track mounted 12.7mm HMG which would simply have made mincemeat of them. There was genuine tension in the dice rolling at that moment, as things really were touch-and-go.

My only regret from the session was that in actual fact only two zombies were encountered - the players were so traumatized by these events that they spent the rest of the session studiously avoiding any possible meeting with the undead! That's good for a GM to experience, as it means the players are clearly getting a visceral reaction, but still, it would have been nice to see more zombies being blasted with anti-tank rifles...

Sunday 24 October 2010

It's like a zen thing, man

If a tree falls in the forest and there is nobody to hear it, does it make a sound? And, Tigerlilly, if a GM relocates NPCs, locations or encounters from one part of a hex map that he has a good idea the PCs will never go to, to one they will, is his sandbox really a sandbox, or is it merely a railroad in disguise?

These are the thoughts occupying my mind this Sunday.

Monday 18 October 2010

You Stupid Bookers

The 2010 Man Booker Prize winner was announced recently; it ended up being Harold Jacobson's The Finkler Question, which I'm willing to bet was probably an entertaining read - something that is quite unusual in Booker winners - as I've read some of Jacobson's stuff before and always liked it. (I doubt any American readers have heard of him; he's sort of like the British Jewish equivalent of Tom Robbins without so much of the fourth-wall-breaking.)

But it comes just as I'm re-reading Vance's Dying Earth stories, and the confluence of the two events really does hit home precisely how stupid and blinkered supposedly intellectual people can be. We fantasy fans are worldly enough by now to know that the literati loathe the genre, and fantasy authors will never get recognition even when they deserve it - that's par for the course; indeed it's a truism. But every so often a moment like this comes along and really hammers home the point: a man who could write something so absolutely perfect in every way as the Cugel stories had more creative power in his little finger than every Man Booker prize winner since the competition began, and yet his career gets almost no mention in any sort of discourse on modern literature - indeed I would be surprised to learn any literary establishment figures in the UK had even heard of him (I can't speak for the US.)

There are moments reading Vance where he is simply so brilliant, so much of a virtuoso, that you can hardly stand it. My particular favourite episode in all of the work of his that I've read is the chapter called (I think; I don't have the book in front of me) "At the Inn of the Blue Lamps", which comes near the start of Cugel's Saga. The depiction of gradual descent into drunkenness of the characters involved, the understated humour, the slightly sardonic detached tone in which it is written, and the joyous unfurling of the tightly-wrought and carefully constructed plot (the creation of which you haven't even noticed because it has been done with such aplomb) - it's enough to make you remember all over again just why literature is enjoyable and important. And yet, because it doesn't pretend to say anything about the human condition, or contemporary geopolitics, or gender, or multiculturalism, or [insert liberal bete noire of the week here], it apparently isn't worthy of the attention of anybody with a brain. What a strange and mysterious world we live in.