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Friday, December 05, 2014

I'm back, kinda!

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Well, it's been a while, a couple of months in fact since my last blog post. There are a variety of reasons, some mundane, others less so, but it's really all been down to other things taking up my attention and time. Work, kids, social engagements, foreign travel and the like. There have been a few gaming related things that I've been up to however, so here is a quick update on those. I'll probably expand on them in more detail soon (assuming I find the time!).

First of all I took the plunge and bought into the new console generation. I plumped for an X-Box One for several reasons, primarily the fact that I have a few friends with one, and also because of the media capabilities (of which the PS4 has virtually nothing). To be honest it's serving as more of a media hub than anything (after all, I'd rather play most games on my PC), but it has really impressed me. Seriously, don't believe the naysayers, it's a great piece of kit (and controlling my TV by voice alone is still great). Together with my PLEX media server its the perfect multimedia centre. I've been enjoying Forza, FIFA 15 and Shadows of Mordor on it too.

Other gaming related activities include starting a new Call of Cthulhu campaign, this time as an investigator. It's been a lot of fun so far, and a bit different too, with it being set during the late 1990s. It's also a lot deeper than I was expecting and rapidly developing into another globe spanning adventure. Adurj is doing a great job as keeper and keeping us all on our toes.

On the PC I have spent some time test an in-development MMO that is due for release at the end of next year. It's early days, but I'm really impressed with what I've seen so far. More on that when time and NDAs allow!

Finally I've been pretty much spending every spare minute recently playing Dragon Age Inquisition. I will definitely get deeper into the subject in a future post but I'll summarise now by saying that despite it's many issues it is my game of the year by an absolutely huge margin. In fact, it's my favourite game for a long, long time and it is still surprising me every time I play it. It's a game to immerse yourself in, and there is so much content it gets overwhelming at times (after around 24 hours of play time I though I was near the end of the game, and then it revealed I was only just finishing up the introduction...). Almost 60 hours in and I don't feel like I've seen a quarter of the world yet.

So, that's what I've been up to. Now, back to Thedas, there's dragons to kill.

Monday, October 06, 2014

For Richer, For Poorer by Victoria Coren

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For Richer, For Poorer: A Love Affair with PokerFor Richer, For Poorer: A Love Affair with Poker by Victoria Coren
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Partly a biography, partly a treatise on modern poker, and partly the story of how Victoria Coren became the first female million-dollar-winner of the European Poker Tour (she's since gone on to win it a second time), this is one of the most readable books about a complex subject I've ever read.

Part of that is the chatty, witty writing style and, whilst it doesn't hold your hand in explaining the exotic-sounding poker terms and expressions, the book is still completely clear. This is because it is less about the game, and more about the bizarre and fascinating community that plays it.

Using Alice's Adventures in Wonderland as the metaphorical map through the rabbit-hole is a great device that mirrors the highs and lows of a life spent chasing cards in a game that was going through massive changes due to the internet.

Before reading this book I mainly new Victoria Coren from her great columns in The Observer and The Guardian newspapers, as well as her hosting of the fabulous Only Connect. My admiration for her has only increased since reading the book, the tale of an outsider in the shady world of professional poker, fighting acceptance, mysogyny, and her own addictions along the way. In the end she won me over in the same way she won the EPT - by knowing that "it's really not about the money".

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Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter

Inspired by the weird fiction of Lovecraft and the ghost stories of M.R. James, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a first-person narrative exploration game in which you investigate the disappearance of a young boy in the remote hills of Wisconsin. It's a game that breaks new ground in many ways, and whilst short (my playthrough, which I didn't rush, took around four hours) it lingers long in the memory.

The first thing that will strike you is how amazingly beautiful the game looks. Red Creek Valley is by far the most realistic and beautiful environment I've ever seen in a game. It's an absolute joy just to wander and get lost in the visuals, and my screenshots key has never seen so much use (screenshots do not do any justice to the in-game visuals by the way).

New indie developer The Astronauts achieved this incredible feat by turning to a new technique for generating game assets known as photogrammetry. They have a blog post on their site detailing the method, with some great examples of how it works. That they achieved this with a team of only eight people (including just a single programmer) speaks volumes as to how a small indie team can beat AAA titles by developing new techniques. It's a stunning achievement. Don't be surprised to see the technique used elsewhere now, as it makes the virtual worlds of many triple AAA games look drab by comparison.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Masks of Nyarlathotep - A review of the last two years

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Adurj summed up many of my thoughts on our recent two-year-long Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign in his guest post. It's been a bit of an epic, and I have to admit that I'm a little surprised we got through it in the end. We took a break half way through due to the birth of one player's first son, but managed to get the momentum going again pretty quickly.

It's kind of difficult to formulate my thoughts after such a long campaign. Everyone seemed to enjoy it, and despite the work involved in keeping everyone up to speed and motivated I looked forwards to every session. It was interesting to see how the players changed their approach as the campaign progressed, with caution eventually giving way to reckless abandon as the months went by.

I'm certainly going to take some great memories away with me, and I can imagine that when we all get together over some beers the conversation will inevitably turn to our shared experiences. We still talk about our Cthulhu sessions from years ago.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

A Players Perspective

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I think this is a first for 'Far Beyond My Capacity'. It's nice to come first. Yes, I'm a guest blogger! It's been an eternity since I blogged myself over at 'Le'Bard Connection' but I'm here to give it a go. It's worth it. Saving the World needs a special celebration right?

Good table top roleplaying stays with you. It can build an adventure of the imagination so vivid that the memories last a life time. The last time my Brother ran a Call of Cthulhu campaign was around 20 years ago. Cthulhu on the Orient Express. I can still remember my characters on their fearless journey. Shade Otakuwe, Circus Performer, and Constantine, a hybrid of a whip wielding Indiana Jones and the cavalier Liverpudlian (yes, I know! HellBlazer wasn’t as well known back then!). So around two years ago when my Bro contacted our old school years table top group and asked who wanted to try an experiment to see if Fantasy Grounds would be a good medium to get a remote table top campaign going again, we all jumped at the chance.

This time round, there was an addition to our group - Matt, a great guy who we had met MMO’ing on EverQuest2 and had remained friends with ever since. Aside from that it was all the OldSkool. Simmsy, Davey Cee, James and of course, myself. All under the careful tutorage of our Games Master, my older brother Neil. As long as Fantasy Grounds worked OK, we kind of all knew what to expect. Neil is an extremely imaginative and competent GM. Which to us meant that we would be led through one hell of a crazy ride should the experiment prove successful. We were not disappointed. Not in the slightest. Skype and FG worked fantastically and the next two years would prove to be yet another amazingly enjoyable, memorable and truly epic campaign across the globe in an effort to save the World from certain destruction at the hands of The Elder Gods. 

My Bro documented the journey from start to finish, so I’m not going to go in to the intricacies of the storyline but I’d like to add some snippets showing my favourite parts and the experiences that embodied the last two years for me from The Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign (You'll find the list after the jump). They are not in chronological order. Just the order that they popped in to my brain. There are a load more too. As the memories started to flow, I had to curb my input. There’s just too many to list!


Monday, September 15, 2014

Masks of Nyarlathotep Campaign Journal: Chapter 36 - The End.

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And at the last from inner Egypt came
The strange dark one to whom the fellahs bowed;
Silent and lean and cryptically proud,
And wrapped in fabrics red as sunset flame.
Throngs pressed around, frantic for his commands,
But leaving, could not tell what they had heard:
While through the nations spread the awestruck word
That wild beasts followed him and licked his hands.
Soon from the sea a noxious birth began;
Forgotten lands with weedy spires of gold;
The ground was cleft, and mad auroras rolled
Down on the quaking citadels of man.
Then, crushing what he had chanced to mould in play,
The idiot Chaos blew Earth’s dust away.
Nyarlathotep by H.P. Lovecraft.

I knew that this was likely to be the final session of our epic two year campaign, so in an effort to try and give a more entertaining pulpy climax for the players I made a few changes to the campaign as written. First of all, as I had already engineered the arrival of the investigators for the 14th of January 1926, the date of the eclipse over the China seas, I decided to conflate the ritual of the birth and the ritual of the opening of the gate.

Secondly I decided to change the timing of the arrival of Nyarlathotep himself until after the ritual of the birth. Whilst the investigators had taken time to heal during their rest in the Kikuyu village they were still low on Sanity Points and I didn't want drive them all insane before they even had a chance to succeed in their mission.

If they got that far, at least...

"Gentlemen, you must prepare to travel to the Mountain of the Black Wind. Once there you must stop the birth of the son of the God of the Black wind. If you don't the son will rise, and he will open the Gates and bathe the lands in blood. Once you have stopped the birth, you must place the Eye upon his altar, and chain the god forever, stopping the Gates from opening".

It had all seemed so simple. Unfortunately the investigators hadn't counted on coming across 10,000 cultists in the valley outside the mountain, involved in a hideous ritual, that they would have to get past...

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Stonemouth by Iain Banks

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StonemouthStonemouth by Iain Banks
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I thought I'd read all of Iain Banks' stuff, whether with middle "M" or not. Seems this one slipped under the radar somehow.

Anyway, I'm glad I found it because it's a real return to form, easily up there with The Crow Road and Espedair Street as far as his non-SF stuff goes.

It is, of course, full of the usual Banks cyphers and characters, taking in his usual stops of politics, dark humour, drug-taking, thriller, and romance along the way. If anything it's one of the more romantic books Banks has written, even if the main character is hard to sympathise with at first.

It's a real page turner, and written with such (seemingly) effortless skill that it is effortless to read as well. The story, plot, characters and writing all combine to make an incredibly readable novel. It made me laugh out loud, and one part even had me covering my eyes and physically wincing as I read it.

The themes of the book are easy to relate to - regret, guilt, and returning home after a long time away to find so much changed yet so much the same. The thriller/conspiracy aspect keeps the themes nicely tied up and the end is genuinely effecting.

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Friday, September 05, 2014

The Masked Empire by Patrick Weekes

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The Masked Empire (Dragon Age, #4)The Masked Empire by Patrick Weekes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I wasn't sure what to expect from the first Dragon Age book not written by David Gaider. To say I was pleasantly surprised would be an understatement. The book is still firmly rooted in the world of Thedas, but feels distinct from the other Dragon Age books both in setting and tone.

Like Asunder, the book is set in the Orliesian Empire, though rather than bound to the realms of the Chantry and Circle, this novel explores the politics and power struggles of the noble caste. The setting is different enough that the book, certainly for the first two-thirds, feels very different to the world of the earlier novels in the series, and it feels refreshing for that.

It also feels more like the world of the Dragon Age games to me, even though much of the books is spent with the skull-duggery and back-stabbing nobles, rather than being a grand fantasy adventure. When the book does eventually turn into a more traditional adventure, past the half-way mark, it actually loses some of it's character and pace.

The books is much more interested in the characters and their relationships than the earlier ones, and could even be read as a romance novel as there is a strong romantic tale that threads throughout. The ending is satisfying, paying off all the characters, but resolving little, and leaving things open for the next game in the series.

I'm looking forwards to playing Dragon Age Inquisition even more after reading The Masked Empire.

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Friday, August 29, 2014

Masks of Nyarlathotep Campaign Journal: Chapter 35 - Jailbirds and Chameleons

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The investigators finished the last session by escaping from the fire at the Nairobi Star, only to be confronted by a very angry man with a large elephant gun, the barrel of which was still smoking from the shot he had discharged above their heads.

"I've had enough of you Mrs Smythe-Forbes!" he shouted, his face turned ruddy under his slouch hat. "Your stories are ruining my business with your lies, and I won't take it any more!".

Mrs Smythe-Forbes tried vainly to placate the man, who turned out to be Colonel Endicott of the Endicott Game Lodge. He blamed Smythe-Forbes and her stories about the deaths near his lodge for a severe downturn in his safari business. Now wasn't the time to resolve the issue however, as the flames from the burning Star offices rose higher into the night sky.

Umm, oops!
"There's a fire! The building is on fire!" Colonel Endicott shouted, suddenly noticing the conflagration behind the investigators. Within a few moments the Colonel, Smythe-Forbes and the investigators had managed to organise a few locals and were vainly trying to douse the flames with buckets of water. In the distance a bell could be heard ringing, and soon after a horse-drawn water tender arrived, complete with hoses.

The Night Eternal by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan

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The Night Eternal (The Strain Trilogy, #3)The Night Eternal by Guillermo del Toro
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This was a disappointing end to what was overall a slightly disappointing trilogy of books. There are some great ideas here, and I enjoyed the post-apocalyptic setting which at least offered something different, but there were too many problems to overlook that spoilt the experience. In fact, I found myself really struggling with finishing the book and only forced myself to as I wanted to start a new one. I wish I hadn't bothered.

The already cliched characters become even shallower, and the plot is full of so many holes you could use the book as a colander! Add to that the terrible bolting on of some lazy Christian theology (can vampire-myth writers come up with something new for the origin of their monsters please? The bacterial/viral angle was so much more interesting) and I just lost interest in the unsympathetic characters.

The less said about the ending the better. It made no sense and I guessed what would happen ages before I got to it. Two stars, and that's a little generous.

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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Masks of Nyarlathotep Campaign Journal: Chapter 34 - Out of the Fire and Into the Frying Pan

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Following the exertions of their journey from Mombasa, George and Jacob were resting at the Highlands Hotel when a loud knock came at George's room door. It was two men from the King's African Rifles demanding entry. George greeted them and was told that he had to go with them; they were to take him to the hospital where he would be questioned alongside his companions about the fire on the train.

After collecting George the soldiers went next door and apprehended Jacob as well. They were marched down the road to the Highland Breeze Hospital where an official named Corporal Neville Witteringham was waiting in the ward where Hubert and Sebastian were recovering.

The King's African Rifles
Once they were all gathered the Corporal began questioning them about what had happened on the train. He took statements from them all, then concluded by warning them to keep their noses clean and not cause any trouble in Nairobi. The only other witness, the salon car porter, was dead, and so the authorities were having to take the matter seriously. Hubert mentioned that he had seen the porter smoking in the water closet!

Monday, August 04, 2014

Masks of Nyarlathotep Campaign Journal: Chapter 33 - The Fires of Africa

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The investigators took the time on the journey from Sydney to Mombasa to rest, recuperate and study their notes following their narrow escape from the City of Pnakotus last session. Travelling on a Baffrey's line steamship they spent a week in Singapore due to some technical issues with the ship, then headed on to Bombay and finally arrived in Mombasa.

Mombasa travel guide, 1925
This city was Arabic in nature, with those famous narrow and redolent alleys, elaborately decorated balconies, mosques and minarets, muezzins and veils. The famous merchant city and former slave-trading centre was ancient, only a few centuries newer than Cairo itself. About 30,000 lived there on the edge of the Indian Ocean, combining bits and slabs of Arabic, African, Indian, Portuguese, and British ways of life. Pre-colonial traders built Mombasa on a coral island just offshore, for purposes of defence. A railway causeway and foot-traffic ferries connected island and continent.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Fall by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan

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The Fall (The Strain Trilogy, #2)The Fall by Guillermo del Toro
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have to admit I struggled a bit with this book. I stopped reading it halfway through and got distracted by some Lovecraft (an easy thing to get distracted by), and I only picked it up again due to boredom (and it didn't compare particularly well to the Lovecraft I had been reading either).

The problem is that the story just isn't that interesting, the writing style isn't particularly dynamic and some of the dialogue is extremely hokey. After the interesting twist on the vampire mythology unleashed in the first book this one didn't seem to go anywhere, and took a long time to do it.

The book did pick up towards the end, and it was great that by the end of the book things had changed so drastically for all the characters and the world they inhabit. It's the promise of a changed world that has me reading the third book in the series now. If the big changes hadn't happened at the end of The Fall I don't think I would have bothered, though the book does seem like a long set up for the final novel as a consequence.

Let's hope that The Night Eternal redeems the series somewhat.

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Friday, July 18, 2014

Camelot Unchained BSC Days in Review

Well, what a week! If you've followed the various reveals in the Camelot Unchained BSC (Bat Shit Crazy) Days you'll know what I mean. I thought the week overall was a great success. We got to know the team at City State Entertainment much better, the presentations were a lot of fun, and we got to see why CU might just be the most innovative MMO for years.

First of all a quick recap on some of the reasons I backed CU during the original Kickstarter. A good deal of the reason was the 15 foundational principles and the 11 promises they made to their backers. If all they were doing was creating a Dark Age of Camelot 2, with the tri-realm PvP and realm pride that game had it would have been enough. Tie it into a voxel-based, minecraft-style building system where players and guilds can build their own homes, taverns, towns and cities, and then fight over them, and then add the unique crafting economy... well I was pretty much sold.

They seemed to be doing a lot of things right, and a lot of the things I've written about before. Player-based economies, sandbox game play, mechanics to drive communities, horizontal progression, and the like.

It also helped that I was a big fan of the lore of Dark Age of Camelot, and the new lore they revealed during the Kickstarter campaign felt even better. I loved the idea of the Veilstorms that might crop up where huge battles and release of magic, changing the world as they raged. I loved the idea of trading settlements instead of auction houses. I loved that they were building an MMO engine from scratch in order to deliver battles containing hundreds of players with no graphics lag and high framerates.

Well, what we saw this week has gotten me both infinitely more excited and also a little worried too. The systems they are putting in place are so innovative and off the wall they they really could change the MMO game space and move things forward. They are also crazy enough that there is plenty of risk involved, but CSE made that plain right from the start of the Kickstarter.

This week was intended as a series of presentations to the game's backers of the detailed game systems that will be used. The systems are subject to changes depending on the discussions in the backer forums and the results of internal and alpha testing.

Here's a brief run-down on the major reveals of the week, along with my thoughts on each.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Masks of Nyarlathotep Campaign Journal: Chapter 32 - Into the Light

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Following the frustrations of the previous session this one proved to be much more relaxing; for me at least. I knew before we started it would likely see the end of the Australian chapter of the campaign, one way or the other at least. The only question was which of the investigators would survive.

We began with the investigators still recovering from the shock of their encounter with the flying polyp. Rodrigo staggered back to his feet, dirt still clinging to his chewing lips, his eyes wide and wild.

Kakakatak was eager to move away from the gaping trapdoor in case more polyps arrived, and so the group moved on through the darkness of the city. They travelled through the dusty underworld for hours, passing huge ancient buildings whose extent was only dimly hinted at by the light of their torches. They rested several times. Eventually Kakakatak stopped. "WE ARE HERE".

Monday, July 14, 2014

Push the Button - Brothers A Tale of Two Sons

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The second game I purchased during the recent Steam Summer Sale, after Jazzpunk, was a very different experience, but on the whole I preferred it to Necrophone's mad cold-war espionage parody. In fact I would say Brothers ATOTS is one of the best games I've played for quite some time.

It's a fairy tale adventure in which you control two brothers who are on an journey looking for a mystical cure for their ill father, and it has quite a few tricks up it's sleeve. First of all it is utterly charming. The environments are imaginative and stunningly beautiful, the characters are well drawn and animated, and the game is full of little touches that both draw you in and deepen the world. I took a lot of screenshots during my play-through; always a sign that a game is good to look at.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Go Bat Shit Crazy for Camelot Unchained!

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The only future MMO I'm looking forwards to right now is Camelot Unchained. I backed the project on Kickstarter, and have been following the development of the game in the Founders Forums since it successfully funded just over a year ago. It's mix of pure PvP tri-realm combat, housing, and crafting systems sounds really interesting, and the honesty and openness of the dev team so far has been nothing short of superb. I've detailed my thoughts on why I find CU such an exciting prospect before.

Now, finally, the team are ready to show what they have been working on to those of us who are not lucky enough to be in internal testing, and they are going to do so in a rather special way. Next week is the official Camelot Unchained BSC week. It's called BSC week because they are going to reveal all of the Bat Shit Crazy systems that they are putting into the game in a way that hasn't been done before.

For the whole week the team will be live-streaming a variety of content, including competitions, live gameplay demos, presentations on game systems, Q&A sessions and surprises. There are bound to be some interesting reveals (this is a game that really is trying to do things in a new way with lots of its systems). I've never know a development team to do a whole week of content reveals like this before.

So far City State Entertainment has been true to their 15 foundational principles and their 11 promises to their backers. I can't wait to see everything they have planned for the BSC week, but from the programme below it looks like every single day is going to be packed with something worth watching.

If you're interested in the game have a look at the programme and tune in to their twitch.tv channel to find out more next week.

All times are EDT. Click to view large version.

Monday, July 07, 2014

"Yorkshire? What is Yorkshire?"

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Slightly odd title for this post I know. If anyone gets the reference, well, kudos, it's pretty obscure, but highly appropriate.

I only purchased a couple of games during this year's Steam Summer Sale, both of which I've been itching to try for a while. Neither disappointed, though they were both as different from each other as its possible to be, in genre, style and just about everything else.

First up was Necrophone Games' Jazzpunk. And now I'm kind of stuck, because I'm not quite sure how to describe this game. It's ostensibly a noir spy thriller set in some kind of 1960s parallel universe of robots and weird science. Except it's a noir-spy-thriller-set-in-some-kind-of-1960s-parallel-universe-of-robots-and-weird-science that has been directed by Gerry Anderson and scripted by The Mighty Boosh.

Friday, July 04, 2014

Masks of Nyarlathotep Campaign Journal: Chapter 31 - Keeper Frustrations

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The investigators were going to meet some true horrors this session. Flying polyps and powerful wizards favoured by the Old Gods would not prove to be their end however. Instead modern technology gave them (and me) the most trouble...

We started in the aftermath of the battle with the cultists at Huston's headquarters, from the end of last session. The group decided to make a quick search of the area, and Hubert soon uncovered a large, padlocked lock box. Using Sebastian's hacksaw he quickly got it open and was overjoyed to see it was packed full of dynamite sticks, fuses and blasting caps. The rest of the team were not so happy about it! A quick search of the bodies (along with a successful Luck roll) meant that Hubert also found a replacement cigarette lighter. They also found several large packs of rations and water canteens, which they took for provisions for their intended journey into the depths of the City with Kakakatak.

Hubert strikes lucky.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Masks of Nyarlathotep Campaign Journal: Chapter 30 - An Unexpected Ally

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The investigators were tired, wounded and feeling frail after the long walk through the darkness of the ancient city and their encounters with the cultists last session. Things would not get much better, though they would find an unusual potential ally as they continued their explorations.

Deciding to quickly move on from the site of their recent battle with the zombified miners the investigators left the red plaza for the grey dullness of the light bulb trail through the darkness of the alien and mysterious constructions. Hubert was still acting strangely (and the players were taking advantage of the fact that Hubert's player would not be joining us for the first half of the session, starting with suggesting they leave poor Hubert behind).

Deeper into the buried city
They wandered dully on, almost like zombies themselves as they mechanically put one foot in front of the other. Rodrigo checked his compass, but found the needle was slowly spinning round and round. Eventually they found their way blocked once again by fallen masonry. They clambered over, hardly finding the energy to complain when Sebastian tripped and tore open his wounds from the earlier battle.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Masks of Nyarlathotep Campaign Journal: Chapter 29 - Lost in the Darkness

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Rodrigo might have got his hands on a lightning gun (model B) last session, but it would be a while before he actually got a chance to use it. It was time to move on from the scene of destruction at the bunkhouses and continue exploring the strange city that lay beneath the sands of the Great Sandy Desert.

Lightning Gun!
Whilst they could travel in any direction, the string of light bulbs that lead away from the cultist camp was too difficult to resist. A well-travelled path lay marked in the thick dust that covered every surface, and despite the promise of untold mysteries hidden in the dark, cyclopean ruins that lay about the investigators decided to follow the path.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Masks of Nyarlathotep Campaign Journal: Chapter 28 - The City Beneath The Sands

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Once again we picked up right where the last session left off, this time with the investigators caught in an ambush by Koori cultists. It was the first of three encounters in what would prove to be a very combat-heavy session that would see at least one casualty amongst the investigators' party.

Showing some uncommon sense they decided to stay in the vehicles (mostly at least) and waited to see what the figures at the top of the escarpment would do. Apart from Rodrigo who immediately decided to start firing his .44! Spears soon started flying down, puncturing the doors of their trucks and smashing through the windshield. Sebastian took a hit to the leg, and angrily returned fire through the window of his truck, badly wounding one of the Kooris.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

The Strain by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan

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The Strain (The Strain Trilogy, #1)The Strain by Guillermo del Toro
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is a real thrill ride, one of those holiday thrillers that is difficult to put down. It's well written, avoiding the large swathes of dull exposition that some of these books fall prey to (I'm looking at you Dan Brown!) and has a very cinematic feel to events. The premise is good and the book's twist on the normal vampire myth is obviously from the nightmarish dreams of Guillermo del Toro.

If that's what you are after you will enjoy the book. It's not particularly deep, and once you step off the roller-coaster the plot holes and shallow characters become all too apparent. For a read on the beach or, as more likely in my case, whilst hiding in the tent from the holiday rain, it's recommended. I'm definitely reading the other two books in the series over the summer!

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Friday, May 23, 2014

Masks of Nyarlathotep Campaign Journal: Chapter 27 - Return of the Ultraviolence

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After a couple of rather low-key sessions things got back to normal during a more action-oriented adventure. Hubert had certainly taken up the mantle of psychotic sociopath since Harry's departure with aplomb. The terrible things that he witnessed on Gray Dragon Island finally seemed to be having an effect on his behaviour.

This basically summarises how things go...
For those of you who can't be bothered with that awkward reading lark, skip to the end of this post where you will find a video of the session for your viewing pleasure.

We began right where the last session ended, with the investigators driving off from the Slattery homestead after being threatened. After a mile or two driving away, Hubert pulled his truck over, and Professor Dodge, followed suit.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Love It and Loathe It - ESO Phasing

I've been continuing my adventures through the world of Tamriel in The Elder Scrolls Online recently (and spending far too much time in the PvP game - I really must get back to levelling properly). I've hit level 20 (yeah, like I said, far too much time in the PvP battles of Cyrodiil) and joined a great guild (Stout 'n' Sturdy, my old LoTRO kin), and I'm still having fun with the game.

There is no doubt that the PvE part which makes up the bulk of the game is a themepark experience through and through, but Zenimax have tried hard to make the world appear to be dynamic, and changes you make on the world during questing are seemingly permanent. It's a fantastic feeling to rescue a village from daedra attacks as it burns to the ground, and every time you visit after that the village remains rescued, the fires doused, and the villagers remembering your heroism. It's such a nice change to be able to fix the lighthouse that slavers had sabotaged and then see it shining every subsequent time you visit.

Let's save this village!
For a world which is built on lore (even if much of it is pretty generic) it's a small, but high impact change to the feeling of adventuring through a world rather than a game zone. The Old Repuublic did a bit of this, but it was all tied into small instances, shut off from the rest of the world. It really is the most dynamic feeling themepark world I'd played through in a long time.

I LOVE it!

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Masks of Nyarlathotep Campaign Journal: Chapter 26 - Into the bush

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Other than George being assaulted in his sleep by his fellow investigators at the end of the last session, the journey between Darwin and Port Hedland proceeded without incident. This was to be a session of preparation and, for once, avoidance of conflict. There has been a definite change of approach since Harry went missing - the body count has almost been at zero!

It didn't take long to find the home of Robert Mackenzie, who had been Arthur MacWhirr's agent. Port Hedland was a much smaller town than Darwin, with only a handful of large houses clustered around a single main street. David Dodge had telegraphed ahead, so the party was expected.

Into the Great Sandy Desert
Mackenzie, a large bearded fellow, invited them in and shared what he knew about MacWhirr's original expedition back in 1921. He told them that MacWhirr was a respectable and upright man, and he had no doubt that his findings were real. Mackenzie had memorised the exact co-ordinates of the ancient stone blocks from MacWhirr's diary: 22°3'14'' South by 125°0'39'' East, deep in the Great Sandy Desert.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Raw Spirit by Iain Banks

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Raw Spirit: In Search of the Perfect DramRaw Spirit: In Search of the Perfect Dram by Iain Banks
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is celebrated SF and fiction author Iain Banks' only non-fiction book. Ostensibly a book about the many varieties of single-malt scotch whisky, it is in fact the closest thing we will ever have to an autobiography of the sadly deceased genius.

The book reads like a Bryson-like travelogue as Banks traverses his native Scotland, sampling whiskies from each of it's distilleries, in search of the perfect dram. Along the way he entertains the reader with tall tales from his youth, and dissertations on politics, drugs, war, motorbikes and other random subjects. It makes the whole thing very readable indeed, far from a dry treatise on scotch, and is full of the author's trademark humour.

It's also surprisingly informative, and as an amateur enthusiast it taught me a lot about both the technical and more romantic sides of whisky manufacture and how the various tastes are introduced into the drink.

If I had one criticism it would be that the book is a bit too self-indulgent. I learnt as much about Banks himself as I did about the subject matter, but perhaps that's the point. In any case, as a fan of both the author and his subject that didn't bother me too much. This is a book written from the heart, and it shows.

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Friday, May 02, 2014

Why I wish the NBI had been around four years ago, and why I support it now

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What the hell is NBI I hear some of you asking (metaphorically speaking of course, my hearing has never been that good...)

Well the quickest way to explain would be to send you over to their official NBI website. But for the inherently lazy amongst you (I can't be the only one) here's a quote from their About page.

"Newbie Blogger Initiative is a grassroots community effort to support gamers who want to blog, vlog, stream, and podcast their passion for video games."

In it's most simple form that's really it - a group of mostly like-minded bloggers who want to support and encourage aspiring bloggers from the gaming community.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Thoughts on Scrolls

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Here are some early thoughts on The Elder Scrolls Online. Early for me at least as I'm only level 16, thanks to holidays, work, and house renovation, and the game has been out for almost a month! So once again, I'm one of the last to write down what I think, but here it is anyway.

Regular readers may already know I have mixed feelings on the Elder Scrolls games. I've gone into the details before, so won't repeat myself here. Suffice to say I wasn't planning on getting The Elder Scrolls Online, especially after a brief flirtation in early beta didn't impress and word coming out of the first beta weekends wasn't particularly positive.

Something weird happened during pre-launch though. My twitter feed was full of opinion from people whom I trust, and it was almost all very enthusiastic. What's more, some people who had played the early beta weekends were saying things had improved. I wanted to join in, but the £50 price tag seemed steep. Luckily I managed to pick up the game with Explorer's pack for less than half price.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Masks of Nyarlathotep Campaign Journal: Chapter 25 - G'day Mate!

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After a less-than-relaxing voyage aboard the SS Osterley last session, the investigators finally reached the bustling port city of Sydney. Seeing as it has been over 18 months since we played a relevant earlier session we started with a quick recap of connections they had uncovered that lead to Australia. This included the information they had gleaned from Professor Anthony Cowles in Arkham, about an aboriginal bat cult and the discovery of ancient stone blocks in the Great Sandy Desert.

Rodrigo was still planning to catch a tramp steamer to Darwin in a couple of days, as he was heading out there to look at some herds for his stud. In the meantime he decided to keep company with the rest of the group.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Troy - Fall of Kings by David Gemmell

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Fall of Kings (Troy, #3)Fall of Kings by David Gemmell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The final part of Davd Gemmell's Troy trilogy is a tour-de-force that takes everything good about the series so far and improves on it. Sadly published after his early death, the book was completed by his wife Stella, but it is impossible to see the joins, so well does she write with his voice.

The story continues the epic retelling of the Troy saga, bringing us to the conclusion we know from the original Iliad and Odyssey. It ties up all the different threads from the earlier books well, brining each character to a satisfying conclusion and telling a story that almost everyone knows in a new and exciting way.

The re-imagining of the duel between Hektor and Achilles is a highpoint, with a brilliant twist, and the famous Trojan Horse strategy is also told with a fresh new twist (though it was pretty easy to guess how Gemmell would handle it).

Towards the end of the novel the politics, romance and plot give way to the action, but the resolution makes sense both in terms of the legend and in terms of Gemmell's more realistic take on things, and it offers a satisfying emotional end.

It's a shame Gemmell passed at such an early age, because this is his best book. His writing was more fluent than ever.

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Monday, March 17, 2014

Everquest, 15 Years On

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Everquest was fifteen years old yesterday. It was my first MMO, so naturally I look back at it with rose-tinted spectacles. Recently, spurred on by my brother Adurj, I decided to head back to the original Norrath and see how the game looked 15 years on and without my nostalgia-specs on.

It's been almost twelve years since I last booted the game up, so I was expecting a lot to have changed. What I wasn't expecting was to find my old characters still waiting for me, despite my old server having been merged with another, yet there they were! In the interests of actually having some clue as to what I was doing however, I decided to start a new character.

Masks of Nyarlathotep Campaign Journal: Chapter 24 - The Bloodied Cat

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A murdered Belgian. A locked room. Arguments and innuendo. First class dining. A card sharp. Smudged mascara.
It was Reverend Green, with the Elder Sign, in the sacrificial chamber
All were the ingredients that made up the mystery uncovered by the investigators during the last session. This time the investigation into the murder of Belgian archaeologist René Delaflote began in earnest.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Last of Us: Left Behind

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I got you to hold my hand
I got you to understand
I got you to walk with me
And I got you to talk with me 

I got you to kiss goodnight
I got you, hold me tight
I got you, I won't let go
I got you to love me so 
I Got You Babe - Etta James

Left Behind is the only narrative DLC expansion for my favourite game of 2013. It manages to do one of those things that many game sequels fail to achieve - it actually improves and deepens the experience of having played the main game, and it does so whilst improving on the mechanics of the original. There will be spoilers below, especially for those of you who haven't played through The Last of Us yet.


Saturday, March 01, 2014

Troy: Shield of Thunder by David Gemmell

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Shield of Thunder (Troy, #2)Shield of Thunder by David Gemmell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Shield of Thunder continues the fine storytelling that Gemmell began in the first Troy novel. Several years have passed and now the nations of the Great Green are in full on military conflict.

The majority of the novel follows two character that were only incidental in the first book. This allows us to check in with all the main characters from Lord of the Silver Bow, and allows a more neutral, outside viewpoint of the story.

There isn't much more I can say other than what I wrote in my review of the first book. It's a brilliant novel packed with great characters, politics, action and ruminations on the meaning of courage and honour.

I can't wait to get started on the last book in the series!

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Thursday, February 20, 2014

Masks of Nyarlathotep Campaign: Surprising the Keeper

Sometimes whilst running a Call of Cthulhu campaign your players will surprise you. I was astonished to receive the following document in my inbox the other day that had been put together by my team (primarily by the player behind Rodrigo).

I love it when players continue to think about their adventures after the session closes. When they put this much work into their investigation, coming up with a ten page plan of action, it shows I must be doing something right!

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Masks of Nyarlathotep Campaign Journal: Chapter 23 - Murder on the Orient Line

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It was time for a new start and a complete change of pace following the horror and death of the last few sessions. So, as detailed in the recent Interlude, Hubert and Sebastian found themselves walking up the gangplank of the SS Osterley, an Orient Line-operated, 12,000 tonne steamer bound for Sydney. As Hubert showed the steward their tickets he looked up at the ship and noticed a bearded gentleman dressed in the uniform of the Orient Line staring down at them. As Hubert looked back the man turned round and walked off.

"Excuse me sir, do you have a minute to discuss our lord and saviour Cthulhu?"
This would prove to be a more genteel session than normal.
The two investigators were shown to their palatial cabins on the third deck of the ship, the porter informing them of the ship's facilities as they walked down the immaculate mahogany-panelled corridors. He left them at their rooms to settle in and told them that dinner would be served at 6pm, and that a tie was mandatory.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Troy: Lord of the Silver Bow by David Gemmell

Troy: Lord of the Silver Bow (Troy Trilogy, Book 1)Troy: Lord of the Silver Bow by David Gemmell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Like Iain Banks, David Gemmell is another of my favourite authors that was taken from us before his time (he died whilst working on the third book in this trilogy, which was subsequently completed by his wife). One of the tragedies is that it appears he died whilst at the absolute peak of his writing, because The Lord of the Silver Bow is quite simply one of the best books I've read in any genre, let alone in the heroic fantasy genre. If I could rate it higher than 5 stars I would do so.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Masks of Nyarlathotep Campaign Journal: Chapter 22 - Two Months Later - An Interlude

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As over half of my players are going to have to start new characters following the events of last session, I felt it was time for a complete change of pace and a fresh start. What I had planned would also allow me to introduce the new characters without too much trouble.

So, before the next session kicks off this weekend I sent the following out to the players to set the scene, and updated the Clue Corkboard.


Sunday, January 26, 2014

Storm Front by Jim Butcher

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Storm Front (The Dresden Files, #1)Storm Front by Jim Butcher
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I had a real hard time deciding how to rate this book. It had been recommended to me by friends, and I was aware of the following the novel has.

The problem is that I did enjoy it, certainly enough to pick up the second book in the series, but I had real issues with the writing style, the very derivative characters, and the blatant sexism throughout.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Journeys in the lands of the dead

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My adventures in Everquest 2 have continued apace the last few weeks, and I've finally hit truly new content (to me at least). I'm onto the stuff that was released after I last quit playing two years ago, namely the Chains of Eternity expansion content.

Along the way I've managed to run through Velious and have now really got a handle on my character again. I've completely respecced my AA trees and now have AA builds for solo/group play, raid play, and a full heal spec. You can check them out on EQ2U here. It seems to have done the trick as my dps has gone up massively and I don't seem to have lost any healing potency. Ensuring all my abilities are all up to at least Expert level has also helped.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Quarry by Iain Banks

The QuarryThe Quarry by Iain Banks
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Unlike most of Iain Banks' work I didn't find The Quarry an easy book to read. This was partly down to the subject matter (a group of friends gather to see a terminally ill cancer victim for the last time) and the fact that Banks died of his own cancer shortly after the book was finished. The knowledge that this was his last book kind of overshadowed the time I spent reading it.

Whilst the bulk of the book was written before Banks was diagnosed with his own illness (he died only a few months after discovering he was ill) it is hard to believe that it had no impact on the writing. Some of the quotes from Guy, the cancer victim, ring too true, and whilst full of invective and bile in line with Guy's acerbic character, they still vividly illustrate pain the pain and anger that the disease must bring.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Masks of Nyarlathotep Campaign Journal: Chapter 21 - Aftermath

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Despite all their careful planning, and for once taking the stealthy approach, things had gone badly for the investigators last session. This is a common problem in Call of Cthulhu - the human mind simply cannot cope when confronted with the power and soul-crushing might of the mythos. This session was all about getting the hell out of Dodge. Once again, not everything went according to plan...

Of the investigators only Hubert was still fully in control. Cassandra was able to act, but suffering from a strange case of echopraxia that meant she couldn't think for herself and would only take orders from others, acting on them immediately. Isoge, Willard and Sebastian were in varying degrees of catatonic states, unable to act, and Harry had run screaming from the cavern and disappeared into the jungle.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Book Reviews

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My wonderful wife got me a shiny new Kindle Paperwhite for Christmas and I've been avidly playing around with it. It's a really impressive bit of kit, and I never realised how much better a good e-reader is for reading novels than a tablet. As a consequence I've also signed up to Goodreads (you can see my profile here) and will be posting my book reviews here as well.

The first is below. Enjoy :)