Marvel Musings - Here be spoilers....

Note: I wrote this a couple of months ago, and forgot to bring it live... as I've just started on Jessica Jones Season 3 it seems appropriate to post it.

Musing on the last few weeks worth of binges to catch up on Marvel Netflix...  I've watched Iron Fist Season 2, Daredevil Season 3 and The Punisher Season 2 in short succession, and it left a number of questions flying around in my head. There be spoilers blow the cut, obviously.

I'm going to miss these shows...

Why in Iron Fist Season 2 does Danny step away from the power when he is probably in the best place he ever has been to handle it? And how did his journey around the world make him decide to take the power back in a different way?

I like Karen Page more having seen Daredevil S3; her haunted past was touching and it was great to see one of the key supporting actors having her background come to the foreground. The Matt/Foggy/Karen relationship reforming was one of the highs from the series.

I find myself liking The Punisher far more than I think I should. Frank Castle is almost too simple; he tears himself apart when he thinks he's killed three innocents but as soon as people he trusts say 'it's okay Frank, you didn't kill them' - without explaining why this was the case - he's up and at 'em, ready to carry on the same way that he has before. Or is he? Does the fact that he doesn't kill the Senator mean that he has changed?

I loved the switch when Madani managed to detach her emotions enough to realise that Dumont was playing her and allied with Russo. The conversation when they both know the other knows was delightful. I was thinking that we'd find out the Dumont's past was darker than it was shown; I wondered if she had actually pushed her father out of the window.

I kind of feel sorry for John Pilgrim; his character is far more complicated than it originally seemed, and I kind of feel that he was manipulated and used. I do wonder about whether his wife was in a similar place?

I've got to admit I'm gutted that they're closing these series down now. At least I have Jessica Jones Season 3 to look forward to. Of course, a Season 2 of The Defenders would have been the perfect way to close it out.

Worldbreaker Finale


After two years of playing and 34 sessions, we completed Worldbreaker tonight, an epic campaign for Pelgrane Press's The Esoterrorists. Somehow, we succeeded and, much to our surprise, survived.

Big shout out to Richard for his superb cat-herding skills and excellent GMing. Thanks to my fellow players Paul, Nigel, Julian and Jon for all the fun. Hat tip to Robin Laws for the weirdly compelling campaign plot.

Enjoyably epic, this has a completely different flavour to Albion's Ransom, feeling more like a Daniel Craig James Bond movie than a gritty TV investigation.

We played virtually using Google Hangouts and a forum to coordinate information.

3 June 2019

Books from February to May 2019

I’ve got a fair bit behind on this log so the update’s taken a while to do.

Legacy: Life Amongst the Ruins (2nd Edition)
This is a Powered-by-the-Apocalypse game which operates at two levels; there is a family level, and a character level. It is designed to cover long periods of time as families rise and fall in a post-apocalyptic setting. Overall, it seems to work well but the GM needs to spend some time getting their head around when to jump from character to family level.

Legacy: Generation Ship (Aaron Griffin)
On reading this setting for Legacy I got very excited and decided to roll it out at Revelation in early 2019. I ran it for a group of experienced roleplayers, and overall we had a good time in the 9 hours or so we had with it. 'Generation Ship' is a plug-in that deals with multi-generational star travel with limited resources and knowledge. There are some issues we found in play with the playbooks and reference material not aligning with those in the book.

Shadow Captain (Alastair Reynolds)
The second instalment in the young adult series that started with Revenger. I enjoyed the developments in this, although at one point in the middle I was concerned that the story was losing itself, but I was wrong. Enjoyable. Looking forward to the next book and I really must hack this into a game.

The Tea Master and the Detective (Aliette de Bodard)
Set in the Universe of Xuya, this is an SF story set in an alternative history where China discovered the Americas before the West and as a result did not turn inwardly focused. There is a Chinese/Vietnamese flavour to this which makes it quite unique. In this story, a starship mind’s avatar works with a scholar to investigate a death because it pays better than eking out an existence making drugs. Different, and I enjoyed this.

The Citadel of Weeping Pearls (Aliette de Bodard)
The Empress of the Dai Viet Empire ordered the assault on the Citadel of Weeping Pearls, and it disappeared. Thirty years later, she is desperate to obtain the weapon technologies the Citadel had to defend the Empire. The repercussions of this ripple through the court. Good book.

On a Red Station, Drifting (Aliette de Bodard)
Prosper Station has thrived for years under the guidance of its Honoured Ancestress, an AI born of a human womb. As war rages through the Dai Viet Empire, the station begins to struggle as refugees arrive and trade is disrupted. A high profile refugee arrives, seeking sanctuary with her relatives, and tensions rise. Again, a good book.

Gnomon (Nick Harkaway)
I found this a hard book to read. There are a set of nested stories, and just as you start to get drawn into them it jumps. Several times I nearly put it down. My rating for Goodreads was jumping around from 2 to 5 stars, depending on what I was reading. Hard work, but ultimately I'm glad that I didn't abandon it.

Blue Planet: Player’s Guide (Jeffrey Barber)
Re-read in preparation for North Star. Synergy was more fiddly than I recalled, but the re-write for Blue Planet: Recontact seems to have solved that. Background material fantastic as ever.

Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies (Jared Diamond)
Jared Diamond’s award winning analysis of the development of societies was an audiobook I listened to on the commute. Definitely worth the time, and quite plausibly argued.

Permafrost (Alastair Reynolds)
Time travel story of a desperate attempt to stop ecological collapse by one of my favourite authors. I enjoyed this.

Tiamat’s Wrath (The Expanse Book 8) (James SA Corey)
The eighth part of The Expanse has the story continuing to move to an increasingly epic scale as the crew age. People die, shifting the balance of power, and the story moves on as Laconia tries to understand who and what built the network of gates. At the same time, the underground tries to break free of Laconian domination. Some of the events in this book are huge in their implications, yet dealt with in such a matter of fact way that it creeps up on you. I’m still enjoying the series, so look forward to the next one.

Cage of Souls (Adrian Tchaikovsky)
One of the best books that I’ve read recently. Set in the future where humanity has failed to leave the solar system and the sun is bloating towards it’s death, Shadrapur, last of all cities, remains. Built on the ruins of previous civilisations, the elite and rich retain power through ruthlessness, exiling political and criminal enemies to a prison in the swamp from which no-one returns. The story is meant to be the last testament of Stefan Advani, a graduate who becomes a political enemy of the state for proposing change and ends up exiled.

This is a fully realised world with shades of Perdido Street Station, the Dying Earth and Blades in the Dark. Shadrapur is begging to be a science fantasy D&D setting. I really enjoyed this book.

The Cthulhu Hack: Valkyrie Nine (Paul Baldowski)
An SF module for the Cthulhu Hack which has deservedly won awards at UK Games Expo 2019. I enjoyed playing this at North Star and I enjoyed finding out the backstory that we completely missed in play when I read it. I understand why Paul was looking on despairingly at us as a group of players. Definitely worth looking at.

The Cthulhu Hack: Mother’s Love (Buckley et al.)
A collection of three adventures based around the Shub Niggurath mythos. The first scenario is the one that is perhaps most easily dropped into another campaign (even a Delta Green one). The other two feel far more like one-shot con games. The adventure in Malta was my favourite of the whole book. Production values are extremely high on this with a lovely hardcover and good artwork.

The Mask Collectors (Ruvanee Pietersz Vilhauer)
I didn't really click with this. It went down the Big Pharma is evil route and the resources and ways that the company worked didn't feel believable. The whole line on Anthropology is not a real science was annoying, and the marketing plot line poor. The plot felt contrived and messy. There was a certain energy to it that kept me going but overall this was a missed opportunity.

The Sleeper and the Spindle (Neil Gaiman)
Neil Gaiman does what he does best and twists the fairy tale of Sleeping Beauty. Very nicely illustrated.

Where Eagles Dare (Alastair MacLean)
Great book from one of the better thriller writers of the 20th Century. It's all action adventure Boy's Own stuff, and doesn't quite reach the thrills of the film (but with Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood that was a hard challenge to match).

A British/American commando team parachutes into the south of German to raid the Schloss Adler, the regional Gestapo headquarters hi to rescue an American General who has been captured and knows the plans for the Second Front. There's a reason they don't call in a squadron of Pathfinder Mosquitos and Lancasters with Tall Boy and Grandslam bombs to level the place, but you'll need to read it to find out why.

This was a bit of a guilty pleasure, but it was lovely to revisit it after a gap of many years. Film is highly recommended too.

London’s Overthrow (China Miéville)
Pretty much a rant about the inequities of society today.

Exit West (Mohsin Hamid)
I picked this up as I liked 'The Reluctant Fundamentalist'. Exit West is a blend of bittersweet love story which also explores the impact of migration and change on society and the protagonists through the SF Maguffin of doors changing so that they suddenly open in other countries. There's a feeling of claustrophobia as society collapses in the face of radicals in the unnamed Middle-Eastern country where the story begins.

Nightfall Berlin (Jack Grimwood)
It's not a le Carré by any means of the imagination (it's too far towards the thriller end of the spy genre), but this was an enjoyable 1980s story set mainly in Berlin (as you may guess from the title). The underpinning theme is pretty hard, as it involves abhorrent acts in the post-War period. I can't say much more without spoilers.

I liked Jack Grimwood's SF (writing as Jon Courtney Grimwood) and I like this enough that I'll pick up Moskva at some point. If I wanted a le Carré substitute then I'd go for Charles Cumming ahead of this.

One ahead...

I knew I'd been reading a fair bit this month, but it surprised me when I had a look at Goodreads and realised that I'd gone a book ahead (which is much better than 4 or 5 behind). Now just to keep it up. Summary coming soon.

Somehow I've caught up!

31 May 2019

The Fall of Rome

Off work today looking after the kids as it's half term. It's been a pretty grim day, with lots of rain. They did get a good runabout earlier but once they started to get fractious I decided that it was boardgame time and dug out Pandemic: Fall of Rome. It's not one that we've played before, but they do like the Forbidden Island and Forbidden Desert games which use some of the same underpinning mechanics.

The lads who saved Rome

Set up didn't take too long, but it was a little challenging due to all the questions. We quickly got underway. Each person takes the role of a character. I was a Consul, Nathan the head of the Navy and Aidan the Army. We were quite lucky with the draws there.

Rather than a disease pool (as in Pandemic), you have five tribes of barbarians who are trying to expand into the empire. Each turn you can take four actions. These include the normal movement options you'd expect in this kind of game, but you can also create up to five forts (which allow you to defend key cities efficiently) and recruit legions amongst others.

Once you've acted, you draw two cards from the player deck. These will either be events (can be played at any time), cities or the dreaded revolt card. You collect sets of city cards to trade in as an alliance with a tribe to make them non-hostile. It doesn't stop them entering the Roman territory or even causing a city to be sacked, but it does mean that you can recruit them into your legions. The revolt card causes a card to be drawn from the bottom of the barbarian deck and three cubes representing that tribe are placed at that location. This can trigger a sacking event if the players are unlucky. The played cards are reshuffled and placed back on top of the deck in time-honoured Pandemic fashion. The invasion rate tracker is raised a level. This starts to reduce the level you can recruit legions at and also increases the number of cards drawn in the invasion phase.

Then it's time to draw from the barbarian deck for the invasion phase. You draw a card with a route, tribe and city. This determines where the extra cube that represents tribes moving into the empire will be placed. It is always placed closest to the source/entry point of the tribe concerned, so a continuous chain is established through the empire. Should a fourth cube be placed, then the city is sacked and instead, cubes representing the tribe are placed in all adjacent cities, which can cause further sackings. This can be pretty nasty. Each city stacked increases the decline track and Rome gets closer to falling. You start at two cards drawn and it jumps as the invasion tracker is incremented.

Combat occurs either in a battle action (where the player rolls up to three special D6 depending on how many legions are present). This can reduce legions, barbarians, both or trigger a special action. Combat also occurs in the invasion stage of the turn. Legions in cities that have no fort are ambushed and destroyed by the barbarians, the only upside is that the barbarians don't survive to settle. If a city has a fort, a legion is removed to destroy the invader.

You win by having treaties with all the tribes, or having treaties with some of the tribes and driving the others from the map. You can lose in multiple ways; running out of cards in the player deck; having the decline track hit the end; having Roma sacked.

All in all, the game definitely has a feel for its subject and plays well. The legion mechanic is different and we were pretty nervous at the end as we tried to get the last two cards to seal a treaty with the Ostrogoths before the player deck ran out. They were too spread out to make a military solution viable in the time we had left. Fortune favoured us and we prevailed. Along the way, having treaties in place so we could recruit in large numbers of barbarians also helped to keep us in play.

The kids enjoyed the game; however, I don't think I'll be buying any more with this engine as we have the two Forbidden games, the original Pandemic and the Cthulhu version. That's not to denigrate the game, just to say that we have enough.

28 May 2019

Alien Quickstart - first thoughts


So, the Alien Quickstart dropped last night just before 11pm so I stayed up to read it.

Some quick thoughts:

* This is very much an evolution of Coriolis, but more brutal.
* It's very pretty.
* You have four stats, and 12 skills (3 linked to each stat)
* Four character types - Frontier Colonists, Space Truckers, Company Reps and Colonial Marines.
* Usual Year Zero Engine - roll a handful of dice from stat + skill + gear looking for 6s (actually a star on the special dice you'll be able to get).
* Pushing a skill roll (re-rolling failures except facehuggers) adds a stress level
* Certain situations (like being jumped by a xenomorph or finding out your colleague is an Android) generate stress levels.
*Stress levels act as extra dice you must use. They can generate extra successes (because you're stressed and more focussed) but if you roll a 1 (facehugger) then you panic.
*Panic is bad. You roll a D6 plus your current stress level. Low results mean you are scared and a bit flakey, high results can result in paranoia, violence or catatonia. Certain character types can go the full Hudson and attack things instead.
* You can lose stress by relaxing and feeling safe.
* Resource management can be important (Air/Water/Food/Power) and running out has mechanical effects and adds to stress.
* Cinematic mode will be brutal on characters.
* Cinematic mode runs in three acts. Each character has a personal agenda in each act.
* Completing personal agendas gains you a story point. This sits with the player (not the character) and can be spent for an automatic success (ie a 6 roll).
* Agendas can drive PVP. Once it escalates, the GM can take over a character and they become an NPC.
* The cinematic mode scenario in the game is likely to chew through incautious characters. Fortunately, there are plenty of spares.
* The scenario does recognisably feel like an Alien film.
* The Xenomorph stats have a random roll table for 'special moves'. You can roll this, or just pick and make it up yourself. Looks like the tables in Forbidden Lands.

The production values are really high. The art is great. It will definitely catch the feel of the films. The material presented is more aligned to a one shot rather than a campaign (but the campaign material is not presented in this). The rules seem comprehensive and thought through and there are few errors in the text.

Definitely pleased that I ordered this.

Makes me Smile


The geek in me can’t help but smirk when I see this van at work. 

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