A selection of Thrillers

The last month I've not been at my best from a combination of tiredness and then a horrible chest infection which took about three weeks to shift properly. As a result, I've not found myself able to focus brilliantly; work and then the North Star preparation dominated.

I've watched a few thrillers recently as mind-candy when I couldn't face doing something more constructive like writing. They're all old ones that I missed when they came out because of the lack of cinema nights once the kids arrived.

The films included Safe House, Spy Game and Hanna. I'll add some thoughts after the break below.

Safe House
A vehicle for Ryan Gosling and Denzil Washington, Safe House is set pretty much entirely in Cape Town in South Africa. Gosling is a low ranking - but ambitious - CIA operative who is frustrated at his position as the caretaker for a safe house. Washington is a rogue agent who emerges in Cape Town as he obtains a file with vital information in it. Their paths cross and the adventure is on.

What I liked about this was the reasonably low-fi spy routines, the sideline exploring the impact of dishonesty on relationships and the lack of any completely ridiculous 007 style escalations. By having a naive young agent, you get to see his experience as he discovers the implications of 'the ends justifies the means' and realises that he doesn't entirely like them. Both actors did really well.

What I didn't like was the predictable twist at the end and the way that the dark-side of the operations was almost ham-fistedly rammed down your throat. 

Spy Game
A Tony Scott thriller, Spy Games delivers well. It explores the relationship over 30 years between two CIA agents. We start with Robert Redford's character Nathan Muir on his last day working for the Agency before he retires to the Bahamas. He's drawn into a meeting about his former protege, Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt) and soon discovers that Bishop has carried out a failed rogue operation in China, and is held awaiting execution unless the US acknowledges he is one of their agents. Of course, this will be politically embarrassing as the President has trade talks with China the next week.

What I liked about this film was the way that it slowly revealed the relationship arc with the two characters across three decades starting in Vietnam, and also the clever and simple tradecraft that Muir uses to outwit the more political new guard at the Agency. I also like the way that this explored the toll that the duplicity of cover identities and secrets has on relationships. Ultimately, the retiring Muir's strongest two relationships are with his secretary and with Bishop (with whom he has fallen out). Both actors give great performances and I will watch this again at some point. 

What I didn't like was the over-complicated plan that gets Bishop caught at the start. It didn't ring true to the rest of the narrative. Operation Dinner Out also stretched credibility, but I was invested enough in the ending at that point that it didn't disappoint.

Hanna has been on my 'to-watch' list for what seems like forever, and I'm glad I finally caught up with it. Hanna is a teenage girl who has lived most of her life in the snow-covered forests of Scandinavia, where her father has trained her in survival, combat and homeschooled her using encyclopedias. He is an ex-CIA asset who went off the grid at least ten years before, just after Hanna's mother was murdered by the CIA case-officer in charge of Hanna's father Erik. Naive to the modern world, having only read about it, Hanna is given a choice to re-enter it by her father. However, if she takes it, it means that Marissa Wiegler (played by Cate Blanchett) will try and kill her and her father. She takes the choice, and events ensue. There are good performances all around by Eric Bana, Blanchett and Saoirse Ronan as Hanna.

What I liked about this was the slight quirkiness, especially the British family. I also loved the way Ronan nailed the slightly detached and disconnected but closely focused nature of Hanna. The music and style of the movie were very well done.

I didn't have anything that I particularly disliked; the closest would be the way that Wiegler becomes almost a pantomime villain at some points.

19 May 2019


2019 Reading Challenge: A bit behind

A little behind

The last few years I've been using Goodreads to track my reading, which beats the spreadsheets that I used to use. Pre-kids, I used to read somewhere between 80 and 110 books a year, but now I'm just striving to manage one a week on average.

The last three years, I've made the target easily, but this year it's been a struggle and I've been close on two months behind. I've pulled it back a little over the last few weeks with a series of roleplaying books, and I suspect I'll be fine for the year[1], but I've never been behind before. I'm kind of dreading doing the mini-reviews for the Tavern.

It's been a pretty busy year, with some of my spare time diverted to writing and organising a variety of projects, plus I've hit at least one book that has been hard work[2]. It'll be interesting to see how things go along.

17 May 2019
[1] If I'm stuck, I can always start to re-read the Sandman or League of Extraordinary Gentlemen collected editions!
[2] Gnomon, I'm looking at you!

North Star 2019 report

Our second North Star, a convention born of an impulse decision after a conversation between Graham and I about TravCon, provided a great weekend of gaming. After a pretty frantic Friday completing my game preparation as a result of game changes in the last two weeks, I rolled into the Garrison around 9am on Saturday to find that my co-conspirator Graham had already set the room up. I only needed to get the badges out and the signs up before we started. Like Revelation, North Star has a very relaxed feel compared to the start of Furnace. It’s probably the difference of thirty-five people instead of seventy-five.

My first game was Space 1889 run by Paul Mitchener. I’ve loved this setting for a long time, but never really got it to the table so the opportunity to play was something that I jumped at. This was my first visit to Venus, and it was by Zeppelin, piloted by my young blonde German inventor, Lena. Keary was playing the explorer who owned the airship, and we naughtily added some suggestive shenanigans into the game. Of course, he was my ‘Uncle’! We quickly encountered a flyer working using Martian lift-wood technology (something which shouldn’t work, and indeed is one of the reasons the British aren’t in control of the planet). This moved to attack us; they failed, naturally and we ended up in a search for the source of the lift-wood and also the crew of another Zeppelin who were going to be forced to fight for their lives in a gladiatorial arena in a hidden city. We managed to succeed with some derring-do and had a lot of fun. It ended with us setting up a tri-partite company to exploit the new technology as good Imperialists do. I enjoyed the setting, the game and the player’s take on the characters. I’d definitely like to look at this again. Shout out to Paul, who was one of our hero GMs, running three slots.

Morrisons for lunch, with an uninspiring feta salad.

Slot 2 brought Chitter, a game set in the Skyrealms of Jorune universe using Genesys run by Richard Talbot, one of my fellow BITS colleagues. I’d read Jorune years ago but had never got to the point of playing or running it. I’d also never gone anywhere near Genesys in any of its forms, so this was a real voyage of discovery for me. The adventure had a vibe of films like ‘Southern Comfort’ or ‘Deliverance’. We were a militia patrol sent into the deep forest to try and find out what was killing all our livestock. Our ragtag group consisted of a pure-strain human and most of the hybrid creatures from the human geneering programme. We managed to establish a good relationship with the locals quite quickly, and soon set off in pursuit of the cause of the trouble. My Bron (a Bear hybrid) was the squad leader and had to pull our dysfunctional and rag-tag band together. Somehow, we did it all by the numbers and managed to succeed at the plot. I found that Genesys worked well enough, but I’m not sure why I’d use it over other games. Jorune was interesting, and Richard had prepared a rich and interesting scenario for us. Richard was also one of our hero GMs, running three games back-to-back.

Dinner was the traditional trip to KFC with Keary and John.

The evening slot was my first game, Plausible Deniability. This was a Traveller scenario which I’d previously tested at TravCon 2018. It is built around the player characters signing up as the crew of a Type T Patrol Cruiser deployed as a deniable privateer asset by the Imperium. It built upon the Letter of Marque supplement, and I introduced some elements of troupe play so the whole command crew didn’t end up on every mission. There was much privateering fun and a scramble for funds to keep the ship aloft. The crew were dysfunctional (well, they were pirates!). Tom and Andy did a grand job of ripping everyone off. Fil brilliantly played the noble and owner-on-board whose ‘Daddy had bought me this ship”. The players did really well and met the scenario objectives in a far more direct manner than I expected. There were some comments that it felt like the start of a campaign; these nailed it as the scenario was designed as the pilot/introduction to a campaign. I enjoyed this and need to develop it a bit further. I think my GMing was okay for this game, but tiredness was starting to show.

A visit to the bar, followed by rather a late one catching up with Neil McGurk and drinking some of the bottle of Jura that I had brought with me. We called it a day at 2am.

The next morning started too early when I got a text at 6.50am from my eldest’s football coach wishing him luck in the match that he had that day. A little too early on a Sunday, I think!

Garrison breakfast with the Baldowskis and Graham, and then we were off again for Day 2.

Slot 4 had me playing Valkyrie Nine, Paul Baldowski’s fun SF horror using the Cthulhu Hack. Having subsequently bought and read the book, I am surprised how well we managed to stumble around in our guise as the moonbase’s robots missing most of the clues yet managing to come out with a positive solution. Of course, we all died, but not before my bot achieved self-awareness and insanity. Great group of players and much fun was had. I really enjoyed myself, and Paul didn’t seem too jaded to be running it for the second slot in a row. He had kindly stepped up as a hero GM to fill a gap when one of the other GMs pulled out of the convention at short notice.

Lunch was an okay Chicken Salad from Morrisons. Quick preparation for the raffle, which went well. As usual, I managed not to win anything.

Slot 5 was the game that had been both filling me with anticipation and terror in the run-up, a playtest of Blue Planet: Recontact with the scenario Trouble in Paradise. The scenario is the kick off for one of the campaign frames in the game. The characters are all part of Red Sky Charters, a family business already struggling to make ends meet. The game opens in media res, with the characters kidnapped by a group of Russian mobsters. It worked really well and the players just went through it. We all had a learning curve to do with the game, but the setting worked for people familiar with all the previous material and for those that had never seen it before. The players were awesome and it felt like the opening of a TV series. I’d have loved to have run a follow up with the same group. I’m pleased with how I GMd this. I was enthused and full of energy mostly. I will do this again. Big thanks to Alison, Tilly, Paul, Dr Bob and Neil for making this such good fun.

And then it was all over. Graham had already left, and by the time I departed around 6.30pm, the last group was coming to a close. It worked well enough that we’re going to do it all again in 2020 over the weekend of 9th/10th May.

14 May 2019


The stuff of nightmares...


Alien - The Roleplaying Game Trailer from Free League on Vimeo.

One of my favourite SF franchises is coming as an RPG from a company whose work I like. The artwork here is fantastic. I suspect this is going to be really popular at cons.

The One Ring - End of Season 7

The One Ring image - By Xander - own work, (not derivative from the movies), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1953341
We finished Season 7 of our The One Ring RPG 'The Darkening of Mirkwood' inspired campaign tonight, brilliantly run by Paul.

(minor spoilers for The Darkening of Mirkwood follow)

This season saw our final confrontation with the Gibbet King, our nemesis since the early days. We managed to rally the Beornings after the disruption of Beorn's ascension with the Hunter and slay the Gibbet King's body. A hard autumn passage over the Misty Mountains got us to Rivendell for the winter, where we were happy to meet Elrond again.

After a short respite, we travelled to the Barrow Downs, unearthing a barrow to find a blade capable of destroying our enemy permanently. The wights inhabiting it were destroyed, and we headed north to Bree, and then to Fornost Erain and the North Downs. A hard passage across Angmar took us to Carn Dum, which we entered through tunnels that our new Noldor companion remembered of old. We penetrated the inner sanctum, dispelling wraiths and destroying the Gibbet King permanently as he manifested in a new body.

Fleeing, we quickly built a significant lead on the pursuing orc forces, but two of the fellowship nearly fell when we foolhardily attacked an orc patrol. We found evidence that the Enemy was coordinating with Angmar. Fortunately we prevailed, and rendezvoused with the Rangers, and then helped them destroy the orc forces.

We rest for the winter in Rivendell, awaiting our return to the east of the Misty Mountains. My Dwarf yearns for Erebor as it is more than two years since I was last home.

Our campaign will return.

1) Eyes of Sauron are nasty
2) Once you drop endurance below fatigue there's a potential death spiral as you drop equipment to avoid being weary.
3) We always felt threatened, despite having characters that are very highly developed.
4) It is fantastic to play an extended campaign in a world we love.
5) Bringing in a Noldor elf with an developed party works really well.
6) Jag, Elina and Simon are brilliant players who make this something I really look forward to.

Easter Floral Cross

I took some pictures of the floral cross that Wetherby Methodist Church creates each year as it is stunning...
Easter Floral Cross

Easter Floral Cross

Easter Floral Cross

Ice Cold in Arrendale - an OSR scenario

A properly nasty film.

I've always liked Disney's Frozen because it's a properly nasty and dangerous fairy tale wrapped in fluff. Parents die, nobles scheme, uncontrolled magic, and a false lover coming between sisters, all wrapped in happy songs and comedy from Olaf and Sven. For a while (maybe six months) it was the youngest lad's favourite film (until his 6-year-old friends told him it wasn't cool).

But it had me thinking, "What if"?

In the end, back in 2017 I wrote a scenario for Heroic Fantasy (Graham Spearing's more complete hack of the Black Hack) and ran it at Furnace XII. I can't see myself publishing this any time soon - and indeed, it'd need a bit of work to protect me from litigious mice, so here's a Google Docs link to the file. It should easily be usable with other OSR clones or plain D&D.

Ice Cold in Arrendale (Google Docs, Comments enabled)

Feel free to make any notes in comments if you should run it.

Here are the six characters I created for the convention. Three are a party from Britannia, sent to set up trade agreements and find out what is causing this damnable weather, and the other three are a party from the Southern Isle sent to find out why the King's youngest son, Prince Hans, has not returned for six months. All the characters have one aspect left for the player to allocate and are gender non-specific.

Ice Cold in Arrendale Characters (Google Drive, PDF, 2MB)

It's fair to say that when I ran it I had imagery from The Golden Compass, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Where Eagles Dare and parts of The Hateful Eight in my mind. The broader area of the seting is a point crawl sandbox in the nature of Slumbering Ursine Dunes.

I'd love to have your feedback for this!

19 April 2019


Chromebook away

I keep on checking, hopeful it'll be fixed
As I posted previously, my Chromebook (which I use for most of my day-to-day computing) is sick. It's back with Lenovo for a warranty repair to the power button, which no longer works. I think it's a simple mechanical issue, but I think I'll be without it for a bit. As I've been doing most of my writing on it recently, I feel like I've had a part of me cut off. It also meant that I couldn't work on one of the projects I'm trying to finish while I was away with work earlier in the week, as the firewall frowns on a lot of the Google services.

Fortunately, it happened in the last month of the warranty, not a week after.

Another Place


Another Place
Close encounter with Another Place
I was away with work for a few days this week, staying in Crosby right beside the beach where Antony Gormley's Another Place is installed. I've seen pictures of it, and looked across to the beach from New Brighton, but it's really impressive. I can see how it freaks people out by making them think someone is drowning. It was nice to get a few minutes on the beach away from work, just watching the world.

Another Place 2
The original picture, lightly filtered.

Murder with the Family

Murder at Devil Pines
Murder at Devil Pines: Perhaps the killer's here?
We travelled down to Portishead this weekend to see my parents. The boys had fun catching up with their grandparents and running remote-controlled boats on the lake. We got back after dinner and had some nice cake (a combination of birthdays, Easter coming up and belated Mother's Day) and then the boardgames came out.

We had a number of increasingly cutthroat games of Kartel during which it was a pleasure to see the youngest's mathematical ruthless streak coming out. After that, we tried Murder at Devil Pines, which is a short semi-cooperative memory-game based X-Files style investigation for 3 or 4 players.

The game is played over 6 turns (maximum), where each player gets a go at investigating the mystery. There are shades of Cluedo here. There are a set of clues for the way the missing person has been murdered (you get to find them and the method), a set of clues for who is leading the evil cult, and a set of clues for the evil creature which has been summoned.

There are five of each clue type; four are put in a lead deck for that clue type, and one is randomly selected as a 'mystery card'. On your turn, you get to investigate (by picking up a dice of the relevant investigation skill number and rolling equal-to or over the 'heat' number (the round number). Each successful roll lets you look at a card from the lead deck for that die colour. Thus you eliminate the potential leads. The cards are returned and shuffled so you can't guarantee that you'll not get the same leads again.

If you are certain what the clue chain has got you to in eliminating leads, you can 'call it in'; if you are successful, this will get you benefits (equipment, extra dice) but failure could (in the worst case) take you out of the game.

You can also wait around for a random mail-order delivery of equipment (most of which amends dice rolls or allows a different set of dice to be used).

In certain situations, you may have to do a raid (for example) against the monster of the week when that is revealed. This involves a combination of the different dice pools. Ultimately, to defeat the creature you will need as many successes as there are players so it could take several attempts.

We succeeded through a combination of Aidan's observation and Nathan's writing it all down process!
Overall, I enjoyed it but I don't think that we got the best out of it. We did have a good time.

It was the first playthrough and some boardgame conventions (like rotating the first player) messed with people's heads a bit. The escalating difficulty (which worked well) and the added complexity for raids confused a bit. The fixed-movement (up to 3 spaces) also caused confusion as some of the players expected a die roll. The rules have everything you need, but I think a crib-sheet is needed and a clearer statement of the Raid action. Nathan and I would play it again, Aidan is a maybe and Jill doesn't see the point beyond Cluedo (but she's a great fan of that game).

The board looks lovely and is evocative of the feel for the game. It plays in under 20 minutes. Worth a look if you can find it.

Murder at Devil Pines
Posing with his Grandma with the investigation log!

Earlier on, I said it was semi-cooperative. You all win or lose by defeating the monster-of-the-week. However, the rules as written give all the players a conspiracy card, each of which has a symbol related to the method of death, the cult leader and the monster. If two of these symbols align, you win by stopping the other players winning. We didn't use this as it would just add complexity for the first outing. In most sessions, everyone will be working together.

13 April 2019
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