27 October 2007

Hot Fuzz

I finally saw Hot Fuzz the other night, after I convinced myself to take advantage of cheap deals on Amazon and picked it up, along with Casino Royale and Pan's Labyrinth (neither of which I had seen before either, but at a price almost equivalent to renting them I figured why not?).

I stuck it in expecting a lot; Shaun of the Dead had me in stitches throughout, Spaced is - despite my initial not-grokking it back when it was first aired (a situation since rectified) - one of the best sitcoms ever made and I have a lot of time for Simon Pegg as a comic actor, going at least as far back as Big Train. It is perhaps my fault then that I found this offering disappointing to start with - high expectations are often a route to disappointment after all, and I found the slow set-up largely devoid of laugh-out-loud humour and lacking even in enough wry smiles to keep me truly entertained.

Persevering worked though; the chain of events surrounding the climax ramped up the pace, the humour and the interest and I did finally start emitting the guffaws that I had expected. I was left satisfied, glad to have seen the film, but feeling as though I am unlikely to re-visit it anytime soon. In my mind it suffers greatly from its big brother, where the same people (and actually, IMO a better-suited supporting cast - Dylan Moran for the win!) had a funnier premise (what isn't better with zombies!), a better script and a style that was fresher to the viewer and left a lasting impression that cannot help but to shape any opinion of this offering. I was guilty of expecting the same, perhaps better - refined by their experience - and thus not taking things at face value.

Overall I'm glad I picked it up and I might find when I do come to re-watch it that Hot Fuzz is one of those films where you benefit by knowing what will happen - knowing nods and winks (as recalled in flashback in the film itself) opening up the comedic angles earlier on than they do otherwise. But the experience didn't leave any lasting impression, any wow factor. It was an enjoyable film and that's all.

Dance, Monkey, Dance: The Diary of a Puppeteer

Has it really been a month since Manzourian “disappeared”? I would never have guessed things would go so smoothly; there is no sign of Rhoubhe taking retaliation for the ceasing of the rain, and Trevan has been accepted fully as steward of the tower by the locals. Now, the first steps taken, my work begins in earnest.

A week ago a missive arrived from Iniere, requesting – no demanding, the cheek! – that he be granted reign to use the tower as a stage for the meeting of he and his fiancĂ©e, some Boeruine sprat. “Trevan” has acceded to this request. It would seem churlish not to and, given our already frosty relationship with Castle Nentril itself, astute to both curry favour with and gather information on the other major player in the region. Besides, Iniere’s coin will prove a useful bonus, at least that which remains after “security” has been dealt with.

To that end I made a point of seeking out that elf – Tuall, I think - and his rag-tag bunch of followers. The people seem to like him despite his heritage, and they have thus far serviced in warning of Rhoubhe’s incursions to satisfy me their presence would be desirable. Any Boeruine is an inviting target for the Manslayer, after all, and the retinues accompanying Iniere and wife will need watching too. I promised him coin, but arranged no fee; one can hope he conveniently forgets… I feel I must be wary of him though, so withholding may not be wise; he did not seem convinced of Trevan when they first met, and he has the manpower to prove a thorn with a fatal prick.

Regardless, enough is in place that I can look forward, to the staged meeting and the tournament beyond. I have a fortnight or more to make the necessary arrangements. I must look up someone who can provide knowledge of Iniere and Boeruine as while I will learn more in the meeting itself I require enough in advance to brief Trevan such that he will not give himself away. More importantly though, I must try to focus him, and hope he can learn and practice enough to employ a cantrip or two when the great and the good require a show... and that will be a challenge for certain.

14 October 2007

Other people are here for my entertainment!

I don’t mean this in an arrogant, egotistical, “I am centre of the universe” kind of way – I’d need to think a lot more of myself for that – but to a certain extent I do seem to carry around with me the attitude that other people exist to for my entertainment. This means that in the rare moments when I am a happy bunny and have interesting and friendly people around me I feel as if they are to be engaged with, or not, on a whim (as I intimated when I mentioned the difference between loneliness and being alone). It has also surfaced into my conscious mind that a similar but subtly different principle informs my gaming habits and practices, and ultimately probably encapsulates why I prefer to GM rather than play.

That is to say: I get a large slice of my gaming enjoyment from sitting back and watching things unfold, and this is heightened if I have had a hand in setting up the situation concerned, as opposed to playing an integral part in the unfolding. This has been to the forefront of my thinking as I reflected on last weekend’s TROS game and why the final scenes of that weekender worked so well for me. Whilst this threw it up as a conscious consideration, the fact I enjoy watching the creativity of others is something I have long been aware of – it first came to my attention back when I was regularly playing Neverwinter Nights online 5 years ago. It was, in hindsight, the primary driving force behind the changes that I made in the summer of 2003 to the way I ran the campaign I was GMing in NWN. Yes, the discussions with others (most notably Ian O’Rourke) are what made me aware of different priorities, approaches and so forth with specific reference to RPGs and helped me pinpoint exactly what principles most appealed to me – and these extend past gaming, most notably into preferences in TV and film – but looking back now it is the desire to set things up that makes this tick, with me resting on the full knowledge of the situation, if not exactly how events will resolve.

The priorities I straightened out back in 2003 before I began to get back into tabletop RPGs again still stand: and I value a narrative focussed on pushing the PCs into personally resonant choices and individually defining moments, salient revelations and lasting effect over action, self-betterment or wandering through events untouched on a personal level beyond the physical scars of a fight or two. I have never, as a player, been very good at ensuring I get this kind of play; in the past I have put this down to my lack of dominance at the table, a reticence to impose myself in order to get what I want but I suspect now that the real reason is perhaps that I don’t want it so much for myself – I am, and have always been, quite happy playing in the style served up. Instead, I want to see others experience this type of drama and create entertainment for me out of the in game events.

Why is this? I don’t know. I am continually astounded by how creative others can be if given the opportunity, though I have to concede that I may just have been very luck with whom I have gamed in this respect. Certainly not every gamer has it in them to provide the sort of entertainment I value most – hell, I doubt I do; like in life, in games the strength of each gamer will be different. It may just be my talent for self-deprecation speaking, but I do not consider myself particularly creative or inventive when it comes to gaming, so perhaps I value the creativity of others more highly as a result?

I function well when bouncing ideas off people, or when picking up on key phrases from someone else and turning them on their origin – I do minimal world-building, but what is done is almost always a strict reflection of information given to me in character pitches. The same goes for plotting, where unless I am directly building something around a PC I do not feel confident in what I am putting together. When playing I feel that I am spectacularly bad at anything that equates to problem solving or requires on-the-spot thinking - why I have a penchant for playing socially gifted characters given this, and my dislike for using social conflict mechanics I don’t know, it’s not exactly playing to my strengths! – but feel I’m much better at identifying and focussing on how I can get interplay going with other PCs, be that one showing another up, encouraging intrigue or just personal moments of connection, realisation, respect or understanding between two equally fictitious personalities. I have always been wordy, but tend not to see my use of words in the same way I see others’ usage; consciously intentional or not there was a session in my recently completed game (summarised in two parts here and here) where almost everything that was said struck me as perfect, but I said next to nothing that session, instead getting my wish – I was able to sit back and enjoy as the players ran away with the situation creatively hitting high point after high point.

I feel my GMing style does play to my strengths, and thus I actually believe in my ability as a GM (whereas I don’t about almost anything else). It also plays heavily to this desire to sit back and watch others. I nudge, nurdle and tweak, setting up opportunities for PCs to hit their straps and players to get their teeth into issues and aspects of play that they have indicated (either openly, or by my inferring from interactions) are desirable in the context of the current game. Flags, in technical terms, are raised to be seen and engaged with and generally speaking I have found if I manage to nail that engagement players will run away with it and I can often take a step back and just enjoy the ride as they interact with each other. Worst case is that that player wants to run away with the idea with an NPC, which involves me doing something more, but really only insofar as I need to act as a springboard to magnify their input, before looking for a way to turn its focus toward the rest of the group. Actually, no – worst case is that the player doesn’t spot it, or react, the chances of both reduced if I’m not the player.

The bonus is that when it comes off, this adds to everyone’s enjoyment – the player gets what they wanted brought into focus, and I, as GM, get to play audience. In the best cases players will react to each others flags, and I can observe without ever having to interject. Like being the parent nudging their kid on a sled over the lip of the slope, I know they may well not have got there without the work I did to set it up, but their enjoyment and involvement in the runaway descent is plain and the experience of knowing I facilitated that gives the warmest glow.

When playing I take care to set up the kinds of characters riddled with hooks, flaws and foibles that would act as flags if I were a GM, but because I’m not (however nominally) “in control” I have the tendency to ignore them in actual play unless given a gaping opportunity, such as towards the end of last weekend’s game, where it all opened up too invitingly to ignore. More than that, it opened up in a way that promised some form of sitting back and enjoying: the manipulations I made even as a player had direct consequences, at least as they were being planned, for the other PCs. It was, in short, not a million miles away from GMing that scene, especially given the knowledge of motivations as the resultant mini-scenes played out. Perhaps not as personally resonant or as thought out as my tweaks and nudges as a GM would have been, these little manipulations nevertheless were going to throw the spotlight onto other players and their contribution to the climactic moments of the game. Maybe this is why I take to playing social manipulators even when I do not have the range of social manipulation in life – it provides a mechanically supported way of throwing other people into focus and assuring I get a show to watch.

Hence the conclusion that I’m seeing other people as a form of entertainment.

It is not that I do not enjoy being an active part of proceedings: I do. Engineering situations to spotlight other people can actually takes some work to pull off, not least because some people (like me, perhaps?) do not want to be engaged. I would posit it is more down to different requirements to meet, or at least to maximise, the pay-off for the time put into a leisure activity.

The point? I may not have been looking hard enough or in the right places, but I have not come across any place for this “audience”-like motivation in gaming theory or discussion (or if I have do not remember). It is not a desire that can simply be sated by reading a book or watching film or TV as these are much more fundamentally passive entertainments and the (inter)active nature of gaming is a huge part of its appeal, and it is the interplay between a game being something you are a part of and yet also something you can sit back from and experience as an observer that is of key interest to me here.

Does anyone else have this desire to set things up for others to knock them down, preferably with a minimum of interference once it is underway? Does anyone else thrive in a game where they can just watch most of the time, or am I alone in finding this sort of pleasure in gaming when others would look to movies or novels? Does anyone else approach gaming – consciously or unconsciously – with an eye on the expectation that the other participants are there to entertain them?

Screw them over. Screw up. Die!

So last weekend (6/7 October) I spent most of my time being someone else. Which was nice.

None of the dodgy car trouble that ruined my Wednesday, a nascent cold that turned me into nothing more than a snot factory, a raft of "things I should be doing this weekend", or a slight hangover resulting from drinks on Friday night managed to get in the way of me heading to Bicester for several hours of gaming. I had originally planned to only attend on the Saturday due to the aforementioned raft, but it quickly became apparent that in order for me to get anything out of it I would have to stay until the game ended on Sunday evening; the payoff for the character I ended up playing was so backloaded that to have dived out at the point we left things overnight and not seeing it through would have left a sour taste.

We were playing The Riddle of Steel - a crunchy, gritty medieval game I had heard of but never experienced before and given my unfamiliarity with the system, and the purported deadliness of TROS combat, I'd put forward an idea for a socially gifted manipulator. It began to look a limited, limiting choice early on; the pitch involved accompanying a noble's daughter on a visit to her betrothed in distant territories and it soon became clear the journey itself - for which the character was not set-up to play a major part - was going to take up most of the playing time. Trust in your fellow gamer is a fine thing though, and mine was repaid in spades once the final destination was actually reached around lunchtime on Sunday.

I had a central premise for the character, based around his forbidden love for the principal NPC in conflict with his loyalty and duty of service to her father. It became very clear in my mind that if the primary marriage was to go ahead, he would acquiesce on his personal desires for the greater good; if however the proposed union was going to have to be sabotaged for the good of the family, then there would be an opportunity for him to turn it into personal advantage and make his move for the girl. So when it became apparent that the marriage was a set-up to politically align the Lady's father with his enemies, weakening his position, my mind creaked into overdrive to try and play cards that would engineer an opening. What could be seen as the downside of this was that it required a thorough doublecross of the other three PCs.

Thankfully one-off games with a definite cut-off point makes this kind of move less generally annoying to other players and more appropriate as a result, so I decided to press ahead. The plan was to be engaged at a big, city-wide, social event for the nobility. My character and one of the other PCs not being nobles, they had to forge identities to even attend - thus setting one up for a cry of "imposter!" and providing a foolproof (or so I thought) method of accounting for the sergeant at arms. A pre-forged letter denouncing another of the party as mad, dangerous and in need of incarceration, signed "by the Baron" and sealed with his mark had been prepared to deal with another of the group back when she had seemed like a genuine threat to the life of the principal (hair-trigger, ultra-violent fighting noblewoman of unknown past... surely an assassin!). This ran into problems when her unknown past turned out to be that her deceased family were connected to the noble family ruling the city, and hosting the ball, only discovered as the group got into a coach on the way to the event. Still, easy enough to rectify, surely? Just hand the letter to the enemies of the hosts - the family the Lady had almost been erroneously married into - and somehow convince them to take action. Job done. The final PC was much harder to plan for, especially as although they had started out antagonistic to each other, there was more interaction, trust(?) and respect between them built over the course of the journey. This final PC was ostensibly the expedition's leader and would surely worry the most about the Lady's wellbeing? Ropey though it may be, I banked on the agent who had caused problems for the group throughout the river journey turning up at the ball, and cut him a deal, figuring that if he did cause a stir the burly priest would be forced to intervene, would wipe the floor with him (thus ensuring less guilt at causing the death of a colleague), but be distracted for long enough for me to make the getaway.

In the event, plans broke down in several places, as they are wont to do. In order to get the Sergeant into the ball at all, my character had been forced to give him intensive training in ettiquette - and taught him too well, such that he deflected suspicion when the alarm was raised; the priest spotted his liaison with the rival family, stirring suspicion, and the swordswoman noble did a fine job of preventing the would-be attacker from carrying out his role.

However the biggest mistake, and apt in the circumstance, was utterly underestimating the Lady Sienna. Love truly is blind(ing), and she had figured out events and took exception to his methods, fatally stabbing him, to his surprise, in a clinch before "using" him to dispose of the aforementioned agent.

It was a satisfying end for me; for the character to live or die is a non-issue at the end of games so long as the end, as and when it comes, is fitting. This fit like a snug glove, but then I had the benefit of watching things unfold from a knowing position. The GM professed to enjoy the complexities of the finale too - but again he was in full knowledge of events. The other players did not complain, though - and this is my reservation - having been out of the loop as events unfolded I imagine there could well have been more than a little "what the...?" based confusion and disappointment with where the curtain fell. I would like to think that after the event, when motivations and processes became open to all the outcome was appreciated. Certainly I think I would have enjoyed it from the other side - having been on the end of player-driven doublecrosses before - but equally would have found it frustrating at the time as things played out. I like to know what's going on, in fact I think it is a major reason why I prefer GMing to playing and is a central tenet of what I enjoy in RPGs (to be returned to in a later post).

In any case, it was an enjoyable weekend, and with all the others surviving, in some cases not fully aware (in character) of the hornet's nest stirred up around them, there might be a potential return at some point, which is not an unpleasant thought at all.

As for thoughts on the system? Crunchier, and using more dice, than I have a preference for, but given the design goals of the game it felt appropriate. Combat was complicated yet often amusing, and the slow pace of play balanced by the quick deadliness and resolution arising from landing blows. The ebb and flow and rhythm of how fights played out was interesting and a positive in the context. However I felt the real strength of the system was in the spiritual attributes - player-defined goals, drives, passions etc. which when brought into play reward the character with extra dice and thus greater chances of success, fundamentally making characters better at things that are important to them, and rewarding players who play to these strengths (and, in certain contexts, weaknesses), helping GMs to fit the game around the characters. In longer-term play they fluctuate, as they are also won and spent as XP, thus modelling shifts in priorities as goals are reached or thwarted. This kind of device is a nice addition to any system in my view - more for the power in players hands than for the XP effect - though given TROS is crunchier than my preference, I think I prefer the implementation of Passions in Mortal Coil to the SAs here.

Would I play it again? Certainly. Would I ever run TROS? No chance.

03 October 2007

I'm struggling

To come up with a positive post tonight, I mean.

There are a lot of things I could talk about - I've just watched Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait; I'm enjoying Pratchett's Making Money; Flight of the Conchords is proving every bit as promising as the trailers made it look.

But the latter two are still too nascent in my experience of them to deserve writing time and the former, whilst undoubtedly interesting, did not blow me away: it was fantastic in places, but as a whole it did not quite spark for me.

I guess I could note that last night I did laugh genuinely in mirth quite a lot - a combination of book, Conchords and BBC Three's airing of some series or other of Family Guy - which is everything I remember The Simpsons being back when it was fresh and funny on so many levels, and yet only watched in patches. Perhaps that's why it seems fresh, I've been exposed to enough to see its merits, but not too much to find it getting stale. Also - QI has been back for a few weeks and this is a true gem of British Broadcasting.

So funny stuff abounds, and this is good.

Frustration, Finance and a Night of Lost Gaming

Should be gaming now, in fact.

Except the car wouldn't start; the oil pressure warning light came on. So within a week of my costly new insurance policy starting, within a week of the documents arriving from the DVLA to confirm the car is mine, and within 2 weeks of the annual service and MOT, I have a serious problem, and a potential need to invoke the home assist clause in the breakdown cover.


The worst part is that it has happened on a Wednesday so I miss a week's gaming (but then it would; I don't use the car much - or indeed at all - on other days of the week), and a Wednesday before a weekend which might also (otherwise?*) have been chock full of gaming goodness. Not fun, and more aggravation and Stuff To Think About (tm) to add to career (hah!) ideas and financial decisions.

Still, things should prove solvable, if at a price.

And now I need to think about something positive to post to boot!

* It may still, regardless of whether or not the issue is fixed in time, but the potential loss gets my goat right now!