Wednesday, July 10, 2024

Dungeon Crawl Classics

Dungeon Crawl Classics is an attempt to capture the feel of old school RPG rules whilst simplifying and streamlining some of the clunkier elements of those venerable games. 

The system uses simple attribute checks for skill tests and combat, with a slight twist that some rolls can be varied in difficulty by stepping the dice in use from a standard D20 up to a D30 for easy checks, down to a D3 for fiendish ones. This might seem like a transparent attempt to sell more funky dice, but dice rolling apps or VTTs will do the job just as well. 

In practice, the system flows nicely with combats being quick and brutal, and about the right level of crunch. There are some entertaining tables for fumbles and critical hits that occur on a natural 1 or 20 respectively. 

There is also the concept of the funnel - an adventure designed to take a large group of level 0 characters with a couple of hit points each and winnow them down until only a handful of survivors remain to graduate into being bona fide level 1 adventurers. 

Looking forward to playing a mini-campaign of this!

False Value - Ben Aaronovitch

The eighth book in the Rivers of London series opens with protagonist Peter Grant taking a job as a security guard at a high-tech company on Silicon Roundabout, having apparently left the police service. An initially confusing series of flashbacks sets up the backstory of what he is investigating and why, before the story settles down into a more straight forward narrative. 

The plot covers the intersection of technology and magic, name checking Ada Lovelace and mechanical computing engines and bringing the technology up to date in some surprising ways. We also see a little more of the American side of the magical demimonde which sets things up for a future novella featuring FBI Agent Kimberley Reynolds.

The book has one major problem in the sheer number of clunking in jokes from the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy series. The tech company under investigation is called the Serious Cybernetics Corporation and every department and function is named similarly, with the high security section of the company being called Bambleweenie who are working on, well, if you know the references you will see exactly where the plot is going. I’m really surprised that Aaronovitch’s editor didn’t insist on cutting 95% of these jokes, which would have still left far too many in there. There are also a lot of stomach churning descriptions of a particular magical after effect smelling like rotting fish which genuinely had me feeling queasy by the end of the book.

Aside from that, it’s not a bad story, but not really up to the level of some of the previous books and feels a little bit like marking time in the series with some notable characters being absent or only mentioned in passing. It does have a lot of neat ideas which I suspect will make their way into the Rivers of London role playing game - I think that 3D printed magically powered drones could come in very handy!

Sunday, July 07, 2024

Watchdogs 2

 In this game the action moves from the Windy City of Chicago to the sun-kissed (and occasionally foggy) streets of San Francisco. The protagonist also changes from the dour Aiden Pearce to the happy-go-lucky Marcus Holloway, who proves his mettle by breaking into an evil surveillance tech company to erase himself from their database and is invited to join hacktivist group DedSec to go and hack everything in sight.

Gameplay is similar to the first game, but with a few new twists. Remote control drones - both flying and wheeled - make an early appearance, allowing Marcus to scope out an area and lay traps for guards before breaking in. As well as the evil tech bro villain, you get to take down biker and drug gangs, a sinister tech based religious cult (no prizes for guessing what this is based on) and an Internet search company complete with a Silicon Valley campus headquarters. 

Some missions require a bit of lateral thinking to find a way onto rooftop locations, but there are usually fork lift trucks and scissor lifts parked nearby, and even cranes that allow you to hoist yourself up on a precarious looking platform. I love the way that Marcus sits down crosslegged with his laptop when he is remotely hacking one of these things as it bounces around in an alarming fashion.

The network hacking puzzles are back, with the occasional added frustration of timed levels that are triggered by moving certain tiles. The trick with these is to set as many nodes correctly as you can before triggering the timed sections. The difficulty level is also reasonable - there aren't as many frustrating points as the first game, and the final mission is also pitched at the right point so it is challenging but completable in a couple of attempts.

The side missions are similarly good, with each one being triggered by hacking a particular phone and getting involved. There's an enjoyable Uber driver style taxi game with getting passengers to their destinations on time without upsetting them by crashing or in one case performing stunt jumps for an internet influencer to post on her channel for likes. I also enjoyed the challenge of taking a selfie at each notable location in San Francisco and posting it on a photo sharing app on your in game phone, getting comments from your team mates.

The level progression is linked to gaining followers for your own DedSec app by each audacious hack adding so many additional followers. It feels a little hokey, but it fits the theme. The banter between the DadSec team members in the HQ hack space is nicely done and you get to know each of them in turn. A particular highlight is when the team has to go on the run and ends up at a Burning Man style festival in the middle of nowhere to regroup.

The graphics are very nice, making use of some wide open spaces looking out across the bay as you speed across the Golden Gate bridge. Locations include the city itself with enjoyably steep streets, Oakland, Alcatraz and Silicon Valley on a decent sized (but not overwhelming) map. 

It's a great game and on a par with Watchdogs Legion for me.

Tuesday, July 02, 2024

Ringworld by Larry Niven

This was another old favourite that I revisited in anticipation of a book club discussion. The story forms part of Larry Niven’s ‘Known Space’ setting which encompasses a bubble of space some 60 light years across and 1000 years of future history. It opens with restless 200 year old interstellar traveller Louis Wu being recruited by a curious two headed alien creature called Nessus to be part of an expedition. Also part of the crew are an aggressive giant cat like humanoid called Speaker-to-Animals and another human woman called Teela Brown. After some manipulation from Nessus (appropriately enough his species is named as Puppeteer) who offers the design for a super fast spacecraft capable of speeds 1000 times greater than any other known ship as an incentive, they agree to set off to explore an unprecedented artefact called the Ringworld. 

The Ringworld is the archetypal sci fi ‘Big Dumb Object’ - a ring of super dense material around a sun, with a radius of around 90 million miles and a width of 1 million miles. This object is habitable on the inner surface, with gravity generated by rotation of the ring and the air contained by 1000 mile high walls on either edge. The crew inadvertently trigger a defense mechanism and are shot down, crashing onto the surface with no way of taking off again. They face the prospect of exploring an area greater than 3 million Earths trying to figure out who built the object and why, and how to get home again. 

I loved this when I first read it, but some of it hasn’t really stood the test of time. Too much of the story relies on technology that is so far advanced from current physical reality as to be magical - the super dense ring material, the indestructible spaceship hull, the technology that powers the floating cities that appear later in the story may as well be maguffins. There is also a fundamental flaw in the design of the Ringworld itself - it doesn’t orbit the central star as a planet would, and is therefore fundamentally unstable (a flaw gleefully pointed out by nerdy engineering students at a sci fi convention that Niven attended). Some of Niven’s attitudes to sex and race have also not aged well, and I suspect that his politics are somewhere on the libertarian axis. 

A bigger problem is with the character of Teela Brown, a twenty year old manic pixie dream girl archetype who is part of the team due to her powers of luck. This is supposedly due to her having been born of a number of generations of parents who were lucky enough to win the birthright lottery and could have children (a population control system for an overcrowded Earth). This ignores the simple fact that anyone being born has already been phenomenally lucky that a particular egg and sperm joined at an exact moment against incalculably vast odds to produce them. The odds of winning a global lottery look pretty good in comparison, and there’s no logical reason why the winners should be any more lucky than anyone else. 

This luck power becomes a massive deus ex machina that drives the plot. In effect, the characters fly around for half the book, get captured, escape, and figure out a way home in the last couple of pages with a lot of plot threads left dangling. Niven had originally said that he wasn’t going to write a sequel to the book, but he eventually caved in and wrote a bunch of them, if only to shut up the engineering students mentioned above. 

On the whole though, I still enjoyed the sense of wonder and some of the sci-fi ideas, but the magical luck stuff belongs in a role playing game (of which there is one, which is now very collectible!)


Saturday, June 15, 2024

Old Man's War - John Scalzi

Military sci-fi is a fairly well worn genre, with prime examples being Heinlein's gung-ho Starship Troopers and Joe Haldeman's more considered viewpoints in Forever War. Old Man's War opens in a similar way to both of these books, with new recruits being shipped off Earth for bootcamp training with the obligatory shouty drill instructor (with a secret heart of gold) before heading off to fight a variety of horribly betentacled alien baddies. The twist this time is that the recruits are all all pensioners in their 70s, signing up with the promise that they will be fighting for a ten year tour of duty in fresh, young bodies. 

This is achieved by transplanting their consciousness into a specially grown clone body, with superhuman strength and agility, superior senses, smart blood that automatically heals injuries and a brain implant to allow instant communication with squad mates. We follow lead character John Parry and his band of fellow old farts through a variety of combat missions, some more successful than others, before a disaster strikes bringing John into contact with a secretive special forces group called the Ghost Brigade.

Scalzi manages to have his cake and eat it in this book, by showing the horrors of war as well as some enjoyable battle action set pieces. The sci-fi twists along the way are also well done, with the cloning process and the nature of interstellar travel throwing narrative spanners in the works. The story is relatively short and rattles along before coming to a reasonable conclusion in this volume, although there are dangling plot threads left open for subsequent inevitable sequels. 

It was free on Prime reading so worth a look if you are in the Amazon eco-system.

Sunday, June 09, 2024

Watch Dogs

After playing Watch Dogs Legion recently, I was interested to go back to the first game in the series to see how it compared. The main character is Aiden Pearce, a dour cyber vigilante very much in the mould of Reese from Person of Interest, who is on a mission of revenge after the death of his young niece. He does this by tracking down and hacking a variety of criminal gangs and corrupt fixers in the underworld of a realistically rendered Chicago and surrounds. 

A lot of the gadgets from the latter game are missing here, making it a challenge to try and infiltrate various gang hideouts by hacking security cameras while remaining hidden. If you time it right you can take down a guard silently, but there's no way of hiding the bodies so there's a good chance that the alarm will be raised fairly quickly. You can also set things to explode remotely to kill someone if you time it right, but this also alerts anyone else nearby. There are only a couple of silent weapons available, so things usually escalate into a firefight fairly quickly. Even on the easy settings these can be quite tough, especially when enemies dressed in bullet proof armour make an appearance. 

As well as gang members, the police are pretty sharp at taking an interest in your activities with a cat and mouse game of trying to evade attention by ducking down side alleys and hiding from surveillance helicopters. The driving is satisfying with noticeable differences between the different vehicles available and the ability to shake off pursuit by switching traffic lights, exploding steam pipes (which I assume is a thing in Chicago) or most entertainingly by triggering one of the many elevating bridges over the river. If you time it right, you can jump over gap as the bridge raises and leave anyone chasing you on the wrong side.

Whilst walking down the street you can hack any phone in the vicinity, listening in on conversations, getting the location of crimes and stolen items, and draining bank accounts into your own. This is a handy source of funds for buying guns and ammo, explosives, drugs and electronic parts for gadgets, but it seems a little bit unethical for someone who is supposed to be a vigilante fighting crime to be ripping off innocent passers by. I think that I had over a million dollars in my account at the end of the game, but unlike the GTA games where you can buy fancy houses and apartments, my character still seemed to be living in a dumpster.

The side missions are entertaining, and a good way to earn experience points and upgrade your skill tree quickly (which is something of a necessity). I especially enjoyed the random vigilante missions where you get a tip off to a location where a crime is predicted to be about to happen and have to scan the crowd to find the potential victim and perpetrator, and then time your intervention to save the day. This has the effect of also boosting your reputation which cancels out the negative impact you get if you happen to run over a bystander while speeding down a street while escaping. 

The missions are mostly fun, but there are occasional huge spikes in difficulty towards the end of the game. The story line is also quite grim with the villain being a sordid old business tycoon pretty obviously based on Rupert Murdoch, with drugs, gang violence and human trafficking thrown into the mix. It's never really explored where Aiden gets his l33t hacking skillz from and the Dedsec group are mostly in the background. I did finish the main storyline and most of the side missions, clocking up 49 hours in this compared with 73 hours in Legion.

Graphically, it's pretty good on the PS5 and runs smoothly during the inevitable chases. It's particularly impressive with rainy streets and night time illuminations. I remember a bit of controversy when it was initially released with the actual game not matching up to the pre-release screenshots and trailers but I had no complaints. 

Watch Dogs 2 next!

The Grand Illusion by Syd Moore

The premise for this book sounded fascinating - a stage magician and his assistant being recruited by a secret section of the war office to fight the Nazis in the early days of World War II. I was expecting this to focus on the use of illusions in secret operations by the Ministry of Ungentlemanly warfare with some biffing of Nazi goons along the way, but it spends a lot of time on the build up with references to the Third Reich's occult beliefs but it never pays off with the end being a set up for what looks like a series. 

The audiobook is narrated in a jolly hocky sticks sort of way and was a struggle to get through. Disappointing.

Thursday, June 06, 2024

The October Man by Ben Aaronovitch

This is a novella that is part of the Rivers of London series that takes the action to Germany and focuses on a new character - Investigator Tobias Winter of the "Abteilung komplexe und diffuse Angelegenheiten" (aka the KDA or roughly translated as weird bollocks) - the German equivalent of the Folly in the main series. He is accompanied by Vanessa Sommer - a regular cop who is introduced to the world of river goddesses and malevolent supernatural forces when a dead body is found in a vineyard in mysterious and gruesome circumstances.

I enjoyed the different take on a supernatural police procedural from a German perspective, and the Moselle valley setting makes for an interesting change of setting too. It's a fairly short read, but sets up the mystery and resolves it in a satisfying way without feeling rushed. I'd definitely like to read more stories featuring Winter and Sommer, hopefully crossing over with the main series. 

Tuesday, June 04, 2024


After an uncomfortable and cramped night in the hunter's lodge, we set off for the graveyard and the source of the undead menace. The gate had been torn down and we found an ominous plaque on the ground reading "think of death". A bat like creature swooped overhead, causing bugs to boil out of the ground, vanishing just as quickly when they creature was out of sight.

We built a bonfire just outside the gate as a rallying point in the dense mist and headed in to see what fate awaited us. Almost immediately we saw a group of oncoming zombies, and we made good use of our salvaged potions of acid and greek fire to cut down their numbers. The ones that remained still proved a tough fight, and I managed to skewer one of them like an overdone kebab. Lovely

We headed further in through the graveyard in search of the temple of the Blue Rose ...

Nobody blink!