Masks: Play report and review

Masks

A few weeks ago, our friend AW ran a one-off episode of the role-playing game Masks for me, my husband Edmund, and two more friends, SP and MP. I thought this was a good time to talk about this game since the PDF version just became available on DriveThruRPG. First, I share a play report that goes a bit long, but talks about the mechanics as well as the fiction generated in play. I follow with a review of the game. Continue reading “Masks: Play report and review”

Night Witches: Wrap-up and Mini-Review

Yesterday we brought our Night Witches campaign to a close, as the war ended in Europe with Germany’s surrender. Here is a quick look back at the campaign, followed by my review of the game itself.

Campaign Highlights

  • The 46th "Taman" Guards Night Bomber Aviation RegimentAmazingly, four of the seven original characters made it out alive (Maryam, Elena, Vera, and Oksana, played by Edmund, Steve, Alan, and Sophie.) For a while now Elena had been close to taking her last mark — “Embrace death and find your final destiny” — so we were all trying to keep her from meeting the bad premonitions she’d been having!
  • Of the others, two players had to drop so their characters (Yulia and Valentina, played by Christine and April) were technically still alive.
  • One new character (Anya, played by Adi) had appeared after the earlier tragic death of an airwoman (Sveta, also played by Adi).

Most of us took a turn at being game-master for one duty station or another, which gave us a chance to learn GMing tricks from each other. I really liked that, and I know I will use some of these techniques with other games.

The most marking events in the campaign, the dramatic fulcrum, were Elena forced by circumstances to kill a German prisoner to save him from a worse fate, followed by Sveta abandoning hope and dying in a subsequent mission. We had tragic loves, stormy friendships, splendid bravery, and wistful secrets.

We all stamped our mark on the squadron: Maryam was our fearless leader, fiercely protective of her airwomen; Elena was the career communist, slowly losing both faith and ambition; Vera was the cheerful pragmatist who always had a trick up her sleeve; Yulia was the sweet young recruit painfully hardened by war; Sveta was the tough-minded survivor who lost her zest for life after one too many tragedies; Oksana was the secret romantic who always tried to have her sisters’ backs; Valentina was the wild rebel; and Anya was the gutsy late-addition to the squadron, trying to make her place without being pushed around.

Mini-Review: Night Witches

Hardcover book and card deck, Night Witches RPGThe role-playing game Night Witches was written by Jason Morningstar and released by Bully Pulpit Games in January 2015 after a successful Kickstarter funding campaign ($48,806 pledged, well surpassing the $5,000 goal.) The game is Powered by the Apocalypse.

The Good

Night Witches brings its own refinements to the basic structure introduced by Apocalypse World. For example, the general moves are divided between those taking place during the day and largely involving caring for the regiment, your own squadron, the airwomen and the planes; and moves used during the night missions to accomplish mission objectives and survive encounters with the enemy. Several day moves allow the players, if they so wish, to accumulate “mission points” which can be used one-for-one to add to rolls on night moves.

These general moves are well designed to daisy-chain and create story material. Combined with the handouts supplied by the publisher for duty stations, missions, Witch-y things that can happen, period history, lists of names, etc., these make the GM’s game preparation very easy. No need to plan for complex story arcs, just sow some seeds and the story will happen. Like all PbtA games, it does require that everyone be willing and able to improvise in response to other players’ choices and any triggered moves.

Night Witches book and card deckThe setting is fantastic, of course. The game’s focus on the experiences of women in one of the most brutal theatres of this exceedingly brutal war is new, refreshing, and challenges a lot of role-playing tropes. The fact that it is also historical, documented, real makes it resonate all the more. If you want to expand from the useful notes on the period provided in the book and handouts, there is a wealth of material available (free or inexpensive), including patriotic music and amazing Soviet and German maps of the era.

Finally, I also got the optional card deck that supplements the book with character portraits, play aids for flight missions, medals, and quick-start character background elements. As I’ve said before, I’m a sucker for visual aids and this one combines art by Claudia Cangini (portraits) and Rich Longmore (plane schematics) with vintage Soviet playing card deck backs!

The Bad

Like most other PbtA games, Night Witches‘ character creation process centres around playbooks, essentially templates with a menu of options each character can choose from. There are only five playbooks or “Natures” to pick from: Owl, Raven, Hawk, Pigeon, and Sparrow. You are encouraged to include as many as you can in the game, but you can have more than one player using the same Nature. You can never go back and change a character’s Nature, however. Each has its own special moves.

After picking your Nature, you choose one of six Roles (Adventurer, Misanthrope, Leader, Zealot, Dreamer, and Protector) which will also give you access to a special move. Roles can change throughout a character’s life.

Unfortunately, the Natures did not feel intuitive for anyone in our group and the special moves granted by Natures and Roles were not as fitting as they might have been.Most of us ended up picking very few advancements from the special moves available to use, preferring to get promotions, improve stats, or forge and change bonds. I believe every character still in play at the end had used their one opportunity to go get a special move from a different playbook, reinforcing the sense we got that playbooks did not hang together in a satisfying way.

In some other PbtA games, such as Monsterhearts, Dungeon World, Monster of the Week, or Masks, the playbooks correspond to easily-grasped archetypes and the special moves fit well with them so that you have little trouble figuring out “what my character would do.” Then again, the game that started it all, Apocalypse World, contains playbooks and associated moves that I found difficult to understand (e.g., the Battle Babe that doesn’t actually, y’know, battle), so as they say: your mileage may vary. Nevertheless, if there is ever a second editions I would recommend revising the Natures, Roles, and associated moves.

Overall Assessment

Hero of the Soviet Union medalThis is a memorable game that has produced intense episodes in our campaign as well as in one-off convention games. I have never had a boring session. It’s easy enough for a GM to pick up and run, provided you familiarize yourself with the PbtA style. (For example, a GM has to realize that she never needs to roll dice in these games — the players do all the dice rolling.) Five of us took our turn at the helm during the campaign, including two that had never game-mastered a PbtA game, and everybody did a bang-up job.

This is not the kind of game book that provides extensive setting material (for example, most GURPS sourcebooks); it offers well thought-out summaries and sketches, just enough for the reader to understand the situation without getting mired in detail. (Naturally, our group of geeks immediately turned to historical sources and went down the rabbit hole of research!) For my style of GMing, the amount of material was just right.

Yes, there are wrinkles around the playbooks, but they are not show-stoppers. Perhaps fan-made playbooks will appear and add the finishing touch to this already amazing game.

“Far Beyond the Stars” yet so close

'Far_Beyond_the_Stars'_sketchLast night we watched the classic Star Trek: Deep Space 9 episode “Far Beyond the Stars” (Season 6, Episode 13, originally aired February 11, 1998.) I had never seen it before; I had entirely missed the last two seasons of DS9 and was spotty on seasons 2-5 until our current re-watch.

The episode has aged very well; nearly two decades later, it is very, very current. The premise (not a spoiler) is that Captain Benjamin Sisko has a full sensory vision of himself as an under-appreciated science fiction magazine writer in 1950s America. The cast regulars play alternate characters in this vision, all without alien prosthetic make-up.

The episode is a success that can be appreciated on multiple levels: the illustration of hope and despair, of prejudice overt and insidious, of how far we’ve come and how much further we have to go; the geeky enjoyment of the portrayals of characters based on real science fiction writers; the actors playing alternate parts with interesting symbolism in harmony or contrast with their regular parts; the musings about the relationship between ideas and change.

The story ties in painfully well with such current topics as the need to even state that Black Lives Matter, and various Sad/Rabid Puppies droppings. For my money, actor Avery Brooks, who also directs the episode, chewed the scenery too much in the climax scene; however, it remains a very strong piece.

You don’t need to be familiar with the metaplot of the show to appreciate this episode on its own; see it on Hulu, Netflix, or Amazon. Read more about the episode here and here (spoiler alert.)

Mini-review: Ex Machina (2015)

Up-front warnings: (1) This review contains spoilers. (2) I didn’t like the movie.

ex_machina_posterNot spoilers: The premise of this movie is that Main White Guy Character Caleb Smith (played by Domhnall Gleeson), a programmer at an internet-search giant, wins a competition to spend a week at the private mountain estate of the company’s brilliant and reclusive CEO, Antagonist White Guy Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). Upon his arrival, Caleb learns that Nathan has chosen him to be the human component in a Turing Test, charging him with evaluating the capabilities, and ultimately the consciousness, of Nathan’s latest experiment in artificial intelligence — Sexy Fembot Ava (Alicia Vikander).

[Edit: A couple of friends have told me that Oscar Isaac, who is Hispanic, doesn’t read as white to them. That really surprised me, I read both the actor and the specific character of Nathan Bateman as white, but you may have a different impression. I have to add that if Bateman is supposed to read as a person of colour, it doesn’t help the movie for me, on the contrary.]

The movie tries to be a thriller but all the plot twists are predictable for science fiction aficionados. Nothing you haven’t read elsewhere. It also tries to be visually stylish and to feel intellectual; your mileage may vary. Mostly, Edmund and I spent our time asking the characters on screen: “Really? You didn’t see this coming?”

But I’d like to focus on the things that creeped me out, and not in a good thriller way. Spoilers begin here. Continue reading “Mini-review: Ex Machina (2015)”

Mini-Reviews: The Journey Down, Broken Age, Pearl’s Peril, The Room 3

The Journey Down: logoMy second batch of digital game reviews, covering the last three months.  Being afflicted with poor hand-eye coordination, I play mostly puzzle games with a plot.

The Journey Down — Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 (Skygoblin): A classic point-and-click with an Afro-Caribbean look and sound, offering challenges that require ingenuity without becoming exercises in pixel-hunting. I really enjoy this series, and I’m eagerly awaiting the third chapter. You can accomplish the tasks in any order and as far as I can tell, you can’t mess it up enough to have to restart.  The first two chapters are available on Steam for PC, Mac and Linux as well as on iOS.  I played it on Steam for Linux with Ubuntu 14.04 and have no technical problems to report (and if I recall correctly, Chapter 1 was free on the Ubuntu App Store).

Broken AgeBroken Age (Double Fine Productions): Another point-and-click that you can do in any order.  You alternate between two point-of-view characters, one seemingly in a fantasy tale and the other in a science fiction universe, until they start colliding and even switching places.  The last chapter was much more challenging for me that the previous ones because you need to meta-game and use information that a given character would not have had a chance to learn in-game.  Available on Steam for PC, Mac and Linux; I played it on Steam for Linux with Ubuntu 14.04 and had two minor issues: mouse speed could not be slowed down enough to use my Wacom stylus and was in the upper range of usability with the mouse; and occasionally in the last chapter the game froze and I had to restart it, but I didn’t lose any progress.

Logo-PearlsPerilPearl’s Peril (Wooga): A hidden object game that is both surprisingly addictive and infuriating.  Pros: Great production values, beautiful images, and some clever use of similar objects with different names (e.g.,  barrel and drum), different objects with the same name (e.g., a spade can be a playing card symbol or a garden tool, a fan can be a paper object or a piece of equipment), and different objects with similar sounding names (e.g., bell and belt, car and cart.)  Cons: Horrible mishmash of anachronisms, geographical heresies, and illogical statements as facts; no real opportunity to put clues together to resolve puzzles or investigate; “freemium” model that keeps trying to get players to spend more money by blocking progress.  Available as a Facebook in-browser game and on iOS.  I play it on my iPhone 5s and it periodically drops progress, forcing the player to repeat a sequence or wasting in-game resources.

room3The Room 3 (Fireproof Games): Recently released sequel to the award winning series; so far I’ve enjoyed it as much as the first two instalments, though the puzzles may be a tad easier this time around.  As before, the graphics are superb, the music lovely, and the experience immersive.  Available for iOS, and the Android release is upcoming.  No glitches to report so far, in the early part of the third chapter.  

[Edit: I finished my first run-through in 8 hours 24 minutes, without the help of walkthrough hints.  (I had to use them in order to finish Broken Age.)  No technical difficulties to report.  There are more scenes to explore and four alternate endings to check out, so this is good replay value.]

[Edit No. 2: Finished the second ending at 10h48m, or an additional 2h24m of play. Had to go look at a walkthrough for one clue.  Then 11h26m for the third ending and 11h36m for the fourth.]

The Martian: Spoiler-Free Mini-Review

martianWe saw The Martian and found it as advertised. We liked it, it was a good choice for thrills, fear, humour, and hope.

  • Visuals and special effects: 5. It feels real through and through. I don’t recall a single moment when effects made me disconnect, and the motion shots in low gravity are very nice.
  • Soundtrack: 4. Orchestral stuff is appropriate and works fine; plus they found a way to add some songs I hate and make me like them. For a bit. In context.
  • Writing: 4. This made me want to read Andy Weir’s book, which had not made my list. It’s got vibes of Apollo 13 and Castaway, of course, and The Lonely Astronaut. It also resists the temptation to create villains when none are needed; the opposition of an uncaring universe is faceless. As a bonus, homages and Easter eggs are buried throughout for viewers to measure their nerd cred. (This is where it’s hardest to resist spoilers, when I feel like comparing notes!)
  • Casting: 4. Good choices, and I thought some of the actors might feel pleased to get some roles so different from what they often play.  Lots of familiar faces and great actors.
  • Direction: 4.5. Like in (nonfiction) Apollo 13 before, the movie steers clear of one of Hollywood’s favourite tropes, the Great Man or supergenius who single-handedly makes everything all right.  The central character of Mark Watney is obviously extremely smart, resourceful and tough, but you soon realize that he’s pictured that way not because he is supposed to be the Chosen One but because of the selection and training process that brought him to Mars.  It’s necessary that he be an exceptional individual but so are all involved, and they are all needed.  As a bonus, the right touch of humour (which I understand is in the novel) is preserved.
  • Editing: 4. Tight. The passage of time is handled pretty well; good and relatively sparing use of techniques like montages and voice-overs.
  • Science: 4.5. The most hand-wavey portions happen in the opening scenes; the reason protagonist Mark Watney is left on Mars is out of whack with what we know of the planet.  Amusingly, some of the criticism levelled at the science in some later scenes seemed to me to show the commenters’ lack of grasp of the context.
  • Diversity: 4. Some excellent choices, reflecting a good deal of real-world racial and gender diversity.  Bonus points for international cooperation.  Still centers on a white man, of course, but strong, significant roles to non-white and/or non-male people. Alas, I noticed no hint of disabled, non-hetero, or non-cisgendered characters. Only one non-white woman, with no lines in English.
  • Feminism: 4.5. It passes the Bechdel test within minutes, as well as the Strong Female Protagonist benchmark. Lead female character makes life-and-death decisions and they are respected.
  • The Bart Sibrel Award for Verisimilitude goes to Ridley Scott, Arthur Max, and Dariusz Wolski. We’ve finally reach the point where we can make really good hoax expeditions, as long as no one on the filming crew, post-production, and support team of hundreds talks, and no one notices the large mobilizations to Hungary and Jordan.

Thanks to Ridley Scott’s own Alien movie and its, ahem, progeny, we’ve had a lot of space horror movies in the last three or four decades.  But in the end, the thing that should really scare us is that the universe doesn’t give a damn.  If we are to survive, we need each other. That’s the message I took from this movie, anyway.

I will leave you with two images I really like: the cast poster, and the good ship Hermes (my new screen background).

the_martian_47_a

martian-hermes

Mini-review: The Gift of Fear

GiftofFear-coverI just read The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence, by Gavin de Becker.  It’s been around for a while, first published in 1997; I read the 2010 “Special” Kindle edition, which for what I can tell means a new foreword, some updates in the text, but poor translation to electronic format (sections of paragraphs were occasionally repeated.)

It’s a great book, an excellent primer in sorting through genuine warning signals and manufactured worry, on building and using one’s intuition about danger. I only wish it could be updated to include recent technological developments like the Web and smartphones.

I read it because of a friend who is trying to detach herself from an ex-boyfriend turned stalker, but this book also  discusses many other situations we may encounter: disgruntled employees, abusive family relationships, celebrity stalkers, etc.  Since it focuses on recognizing true warning signs of danger and separating them from hype, it felt awfully topical this week with the news of yet another school shooting and the way the shooter had announced his plans.

I suspect many people could benefit from reading it, but I think all women should.

 

Dipping my toes in the digital pool

TengamiMy friends know I love, love, love tabletop games, but rarely play digital games.  For one thing, I have poor reflexes, speed, coordination, and dexterity, which cuts down entirely swaths of games; and I don’t get very excited with resource-management games.

I do, however, enjoy well-made mysteries and puzzle games, and sometimes even excel at them. I particularly enjoy the ones that have a narrative and some good graphics. Recently, I worked my way through the following, with great enjoyment:

Alchemy Mysteries: Prague Legends (Jet Dogs Studio): Not too hard on normal settings, perfect to while away a few hours and strike a good mix of challenge and brainlessness.  Some pixel-hunting and occasional glitches, but nothing terminal.  You can also play on advanced mode for more limited access to clues.

Tengami (Nyamyam): Beautiful and oddly relaxing, based on Japanese paper art.  Pretty quick to move through, but so pretty.

The Room and The Room 2 (Fireproof Games): Boxes within boxes which you have to open. Best balance of challenging versus feasible in the bunch.  Completely addictive, beautiful, logical. I can’t wait for No. 3.

Monument Valley (ustwo): The adventures of a princess on a quest in an Escher-inspired landscape. Sweet and clever, stylized art, a bit like Tengami.

I’m still working on the last three:

Last Voyage (Semidome): Visuals reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Very attractive but some puzzles require more reflexes than I have. Yes, they are minimal, but I’m just that clumsy.

The Guides (Kevin Bradford): A cryptography game? I have not figured out that one yet. It may be too smart for me.

DEVICE 6 (Simogo): Combination of puzzle and choose-your-own-adventure ebook. I loaded it but have not gotten very far because it’s hard on my eyes (it’s on my phone).

Ant-Man: Spoiler-Free Mini-Review

Ant-Man posterWe saw Ant-Man and really enjoyed it. I would never have expected I would like this movie so much, but I had a great time. Viewers are advised to stay until the very, very end for the last Easter egg.

  • Visuals and special effects: 5. It’s as slick as all the previous movies in the franchise, and shows creativity in the visual use of the hero’s powers interacting with the sets.
  • Soundtrack: 4. Largely what you’d hope for in terms of score, plus some really fun choices of pop tunes.
  • Writing: 4. It’s a simple storyline told cleanly, with a great comic-book feel. (If you don’t like comic books, I advise not seeing Marvel Studios movies, just sayin’.) Snappy dialogue, good short-cuts through background materials.
  • Casting: 4. Good, endearing choices. I could do with a more charismatic villain; he wasn’t bad, just not as good as some. Then again, it’s tough being compared to Tom Hiddleston’s Loki or even Lee Pace’s Ronan.
  • Direction: 4. Snappy, generally injecting the right mood into various scenes, keeping everyone focused.
  • Editing: 4.5. Tight, cuts through unnecessary material, trusts the viewer to follow interpolations.
  • Superheroics: 4. Completely in genre with the action, drama, humour and histrionics. Of course it also has comic-book physics.
  • Diversity: 3.5. It has some persons of colour as fun characters but in support roles. I was also initially concerned that they would be just comic relief but they get more depth. I really hope we see them again with more spotlight time.
  • Feminism: 2.5. It fails the Bechdel test, and underplays Evangeline Lilly as far as technically feasible. On the other hand, the two most visible female characters are endearing, resilient, smart, likeable.
  • Reese’s Pieces Award for product placement goes to Baskin-Robbins, with a special mention to Apple’s iPhone.
  • The movie also earns the Academy Awards for Best Use of Tilt-Shift Photography and Best Use of Dialogue Dubbing. You’ll know what I mean when you get to these scenes.
  • Also, the award for most ill-advised target for a bit of “science-y” exposition.

Titansgrave: Yes!

titansgrave-logo-croppedAs a card-carrying (not really) gamer geek, I just had to watch Wil Wheaton’s Web series Titansgrave: The Ashes of Valkana, part of the Geek and Sundry programming.

This is a ten-episode series in which we follow game-master Wil Wheaton and his four players through a short role-playing campaign based on an original science fantasy setting and using Green Ronin Publishing’s Adventure Game Engine (AGE) system, which also powers their licensed Dragon Age RPG and the upcoming second edition of Blue RoseTitansgrave will soon be released as an adventure and setting sourcebook for AGE.  This professional show offers the high production values missing in amateur recordings of role-playing sessions and is meant to address geeks who are not already role-players.

I’ve posted a review of Dragon Age RPG a few years ago on RPG.net. In short, AGE is a pretty traditional system but a pleasantly streamlined and consistent one. Some of the suggestions for changes which I had at the time are addressed by this most recent version of the system, such as expansion of the use of stunts. But intrinsically, it’s not a hippie game and it should not feel disconcerting for most gamers.

Therefore, it makes a perfect example of how easy it can be to “say yes” as the GM even without fancy system features to support it. I really appreciate that Wil Wheaton has been giving great examples of this throughout the show so far. For example, when a player says she wants to do something fancy and cool, Wil doesn’t say “No, you have to wait until you know whether you have stunt points for this.” Instead he says “OK, and if you have stunts points, [insert cool effect here] may happen.”  I have yet to see him just saying “No” to a player’s idea.

He also wants the characters to have exciting adventures, not just walk along dotted lines through the scenario. When the rolls are failures, he describes the results, or encourages the players to describe them, in terms of bad luck or the opposition countering, not in terms of player characters’ ineffectiveness. Something happens and throws a new twist or danger. And Wil asks his players to create details, to name characters, and so forth, and uses these details to shape the story. Sure, he could fill in all those little details himself, but this is more fun and gets the players more involved, more invested.

I sure hope GMs are watching this!