Monday, 26 December 2016

Not Quite Review Corner: The Walking Dead S3 (Telltale)

OK, in the spirit of 2016 the final post for the year - which is why this is up now rather than Sunday - will be a review of zombie apocalypse title Telltale Games' The Walking Dead Season 3, aka A New Frontier. This title is available on current generation consoles and PC as well as iPad; I played the iPad version of episodes one and two. Spoilers, especially for The Walking Dead Season Two, so bear that in mind in three, two, one ...


Telltale creates brilliant plots. You forgive its on-rails story beats because the characters and situations are interesting and the story's good. However Telltale has gone to the well once too often with Season Three, and no matter how good the story is veterans of the title will feel cheated.

Bear in mind: I loved Telltale's previous efforts. Like everyone else I fell in a big way for Clementine and Lee in Season One. When Clementine became the main character in Season Two I was on board, and enjoyed it from start to finish. However that was because in Season Two the story branched off; your decisions really mattered, because your decisions determined where Clementine would end up.

At the end of the last Season I went with Jane and ended up in Carver's old base. I could have gone to Wellington to live with other survivors, or gone with Kenny, or struck out on my own. This was a huge difference from Season One, where no matter what I did everyone's fates were set in stone and my decisions changed nothing.

Except my decisions in Season Two really changed nothing, because at the beginning of Season Three no matter what I decided Clementine's story is reset to zero again. No Kenny, no Jane, and no matter where I thought I left Clementine she's not there any more. Moreover there's no chance of either Kenny or Jane coming back in future episodes. All the work I put into Clementine's story counts for nothing.

Now she's second fiddle again, this time to series newcomer Javier, or Javi, a former pro baseball player who got booted for cheating and has deep-seated family issues. The story starts with Javi guiding part of his extended family away from the developing zombie madness, while his older brother David takes their bitten mother to the hospital. So far so Walking Dead, and to the game's credit Javi and his family are interesting, developed characters with distinct voices and personalities.

Frankly, if the game had concentrated on them and left Clementine out of it, I'd have enjoyed it more than I did. But Clementine's become an icon of the series now, not unlike Rick in The Walking Dead comic book and TV show, so nothing in Telltale's drama can happen unless Clementine is involved.

Her plot role is blurry. In the first Season, as Lee, you guided and protected Clementine, and she became the moral center of the story. In the second Season Clementine grew up and began taking charge of her own life, assuming a leadership role. In the third Season you don't really know if she's some kind of mentor to Javi, a millstone around his neck, or something else. Is Javi supposed to be another Lee? Is this a partnership of equals? Is she just here because Telltale couldn't write this thing without her?

Season Three reminds me, now I think on it, of 400 Days, the filler episode between Season One and Season Two. I wasn't expecting much from 400 Days, and I didn't get much. It was bite sized entertainment. Great storytelling - again, telling the tale is not Telltale's problem - but zero impact on the ongoing plot. You might or might not rescue X, Y or Z, and that means X, Y or Z might or might not show up for a very brief cameo moment in Season Two. In that cameo moment the character delivers one or two lines. Then the character vanishes, never to be seen again. Presumably they get eaten. Who knows? Who cares?

Mechanically this is the Telltale you remember, with the usual screen pokes and swipes to get you from A to B. If you've never played one of these before the system is so simple anyone can pick it up. If you're a series regular there's nothing new here.

Graphically I think iPad users were cheated. The resolution's not nearly as good as other platforms. Example: early on in the first episode Jane gives Clementine a small tattoo on her hand. I had no idea what that thing was. At first I thought Clem'd been bitten. It was only after I saw the same sequence in a YouTube video that I realized it was a tattoo. This isn't a huge problem, but it is annoying.

Sound effects are sparse. Big moments have their big bangs and zombie groans, but frequently the protagonists are moving through areas where there ought to be background noises - birds, wind in the trees - and it's just silent. The music's decent, but no standout moments so far.

Will I keep playing?

Ehhhhh ...

I'm not buying into the season pack deal, that's for certain. I might pick up the other episodes if they go on sale in a year's time. But I can't help thinking that no matter what I do, what I decide, this video game doesn't want me involved. My decisions don't matter. My input's irrelevant.

It's like a work meeting. You're expected to attend, perhaps even encouraged to contribute. But this is the kind of workplace that doesn't want to hear your ideas. Management has already decided what's going to happen. You're just window dressing in someone else's pretty picture.


Sunday, 25 December 2016

Cthulhu Confidential (Trail of Cthulhu, Pelgrane)

I own a boardgame I never play. It's called B-17: Queen of the Skies, an old Avalon Hill title from 1983. It's designed as a solo experience but you can, with some modification, enjoy it as a two-player game.

You fly a B-17 from an airfield in Britain to somewhere in Occupied Europe or Germany, in hope of bombing a strategic target back to the stone age. It kinda works. If you can throw yourself into the experience guiding a heavily armed flying colander, engines sputtering, crew bleeding out, all the way back to its home airfield after a raid is a lot of fun.

I stopped playing when I realized that, mechanically speaking, all I was doing was rolling D6s time and time again. I didn't choose my target: that was a D6 roll. I didn't choose where I was in the formation: that was a D6 roll. I didn't choose the weather: that was a D6 roll. I definitely did not choose when the flak opened up on me or enemy fighters attacked: that was a D6 roll. When the enemy attacked I chose which MG gunners fired back and when. That was it. Resolving what happened next was a D6 roll. What was hit, and how badly, was a D6 roll. And so on.

B-17 colored my opinion of solo and one-player games for decades to come. I stopped looking for one player fun. B-17 was, in a very real sense, why I got into RPGs in the first place: RPGs offered multiplayer, where several like-minded souls got together and invented adventures.

Along comes Cthulhu Confidential, the One-to-One experience. One Keeper, one Player.

Hmmmm, I think.


It's a lot of fun.

It's basically GUMSHOE, so if you're used to that system then you'll find little to puzzle you here. The investigative and general abilities are pretty much as you remember them. The only investigative ability that's in any way unusual is Inspiration, which has been used by GUMSHOE before but not often. Also, Health is gone, passing off some of its minor poison-resisting and other active test functions to Athletics. There's a new general ability, Devices, that replaces Mechanical and Electrical Repair. That's it. If you've ever played a GUMSHOE title before, you know what to expect.

For those of you who haven't, or who need a refresher: investigative abilities are used to gather clues. The core or really important clues are always given free. Investigative abilities are used for all the extra bits of information you may need either to make more sense of what's going on, or to give you some advantage. Investigative abilities never fail. You always get the information; it's what you do with it that counts.

General abilities are used when failure is a real possibility. Driving a car in a high-speed chase? You'll need to make a Driving test. Failure may mean you wreck your car, success may mean the enemy wrecks their car, and so on. General abilities aren't about getting information. They're about action, and the consequences of action. Also known as the Mother of Mercy Moment.

There are two new mechanics which will, I suspect, take some getting used to. One is the Push system. You start the game with four Pushes, and can gain more through play. Pushes are used in combination with investigative abilities, when the player wants to gain a specific extra advantage. Say your character has been dosed with a Mickey Finn. Spending a Push in combination with Chemistry allows your character to concoct a simple antidote, using only the contents of an ordinary medicine cabinet. A minor but important advantage, since succumbing to the Mickey probably doesn't end the story. Instead succumbing shapes the narrative in a particular way. With the Push, on the other hand, other options open up: you could fake unconsciousness, either to spring an ambush or to gather information while goons stand chatting over your 'sleeping' carcass. Or you could run away, or come up with another idea. In short, you have more choices with a Push than you have without one.

As a mechanic Pushes remind me strongly of Nights Black Agent's Cherries, and may have the same problem. Cherries are great but I've noticed players, particularly inexperienced players, sometimes forget to use them. This can lead to issues when a character who ought to have the advantage in an encounter doesn't use her general abilities to their best effect because she's forgotten she has Cherry freebies coming to her. The Keeper may want to remind the player about Pushes, especially first time players.

The other is the Challenge test system. In GUMSHOE up to this point a test is usually part of an extended sequence. Take combat: any one combat might involve several different consecutive rolls as the combatants dodge, shoot, engage in hand-to-hand, always chipping away at the target's Health stat. Even a fight with Mooks might want several different tests in the same scene. Now it's all one test, or Challenge, in which the active party - you, the player - have to roll equal to or greater than a specified Difficulty.

Sound familiar? Well, it ought to, but here's the rub: it's all one roll per Challenge. There's no 'OK, that didn't work, so let me try this,' or 'OK, he's hurt, now I'll press the advantage with my other general ability, or just keep going with this one.' Nope. All one roll. With one, two or possibly three D6.

Aha! Something new has been added!

Up to now general abilities were a kind of high-stakes poker match, in which the player wagers a certain number of points from his starting pool in hope that whatever is bet, plus a die roll, is enough to beat the Difficulty of the test. In One to One there are no pools. The player often only has one D6 at his disposal, with no modifiers, and the Challenge's Difficulty number is the X factor. Some Challenges are more consequential than others, so this X factor may change dramatically from Challenge to Challenge. It's a straight-up test, in which the result can be Advantage, Hold or Setback.

Gaining an Advantage is a success with extra benefits, probably conferring an Edge which can be used in future Challenges. A Hold is a no-harm-no-foul situation, in which you don't get exactly what you want but at least didn't get a penalty either. A Setback is a failure, probably accompanied by a problem of some kind.

You'll note I said problem, not Unqualified Failure, OMG, Your Character Is Dead, Dead, Dead. Like all GUMSHOE products One-to-One is all about the story, which means the scenario usually isn't written in such a way that a Challenge failure early on kills the story. A character can still die - messily, unpleasantly, weeping like a baby - but the scenario designer would prefer that this happens towards the end of the narrative. If the player deliberately orchestrates things such that death at the halfway point is the only logical consequence of the player's actions, c'est la vie. But it's unsporting, darn it, and not the hallmark of a true gentleperson.

Oh, and those Problems I mentioned? They're fun. O so very much fun. Problems have counterparts, Edges, but Keepers and Players may come to love Problems more.

Problems and Edges are story beats. Edges give you some kind of story benefit, usually in a specified scene or circumstance. Problems give you a story problem to overcome. Since Confidential is a Noir setting each character starts with a 'free' Problem, such as:

Heedless. You never met a warning you couldn't ignore. Take a -1 penalty on all Sense Trouble checks. Discard this when you gain your first Sense Trouble Setback.

So in other words, discard Heedless when you do something that almost certainly earns you another Problem. Cunning.

You can see why the player may come to love Problems. Edges are just temporary bennies, but Problems push you towards doing something, in narrative, to deal with your Problem. This in turn may lead to other story complications, and so on and on. Problems help shape the narrative, in other words. Edges simplify the narrative, and film noir has never been about simplifying anything.

Each time your character earns an Edge or a Problem you are given a card describing that Edge or Problem, which you keep until such time as it's expended or resolved. At that point, and only at that point, do you discard the card. This means you can still have Problem cards in your hand when the scenario ends, and that can lead to all kinds of long-term consequences depending on the nature of the Problem. Or short-term, if the Problem leads to the character's demise.

Incidentally for those Keepers out there thinking 'that sounds like a lot of cards,' yes, it does, and yes, it will be. Capital Color, one of three scenarios in Cthulhu Confidential, has 42 individual Problem cards unique to that scenario and 18 Edges, or 60 scenario-specific cards total. As Keeper when designing one of these scenarios you should bear in mind you'll need to come up with roughly the same number, not including generic Problems and Edges the character might earn through actions, and thus Challenges, not anticipated in the scenario's design.

It seems like a chore, but really isn't once you get the hang of it. These Challenges all have roughly the same structure, and there's a handy cheat sheet for working out how to scale an individual Challenge up or down. After you've done this once, probably sweating bullets over each Challenge, you'll find the next set of Challenges with their consequential Problems and Edges much easier to create.

"But what about the Mythos?" I hear you scream. "I want to be driven completely bonkers!" So you shall, with Mythos or horror-based Challenges. These work in broadly the same way as other Challenges, in that Edges can be earned and Setbacks leave you with a Problem that has to be dealt with before the scenario ends. Except that where most Problems can be resolved mechanically - like Heedless, which is discarded after earning a Sense Trouble setback - these Problems are usually dealt with narratively.

Take a scene in which you find the decapitated corpse of a young actress. This non-Mythos horror-based Challenge can lead to a Setback, earning not one but two Problems. The first is mechanical:

Decapitated Starlet. The image of Leona's head at your feet burns itself to the inside of your retinas. Whenever your mind wanders, a vivid memory of it assails your consciousness. -3 penalty on all General or Mental Challenges. Counter by Taking Time to submit to narcosynthesis under the care of a shrink.

The other can only be dealt with narratively:

Vengeful. If you find out who killed Leona, you will be compelled to avenge her, risks be damned.

Where Decapitated Starlet can be dealt with by the player without incurring further risks or Challenges, Vengeful sets the player up for a future Challenge. In this particular example it's presumed that the Challenge will occur at some point during the scenario, so there's no long-term mechanical consequences to complicate the character's life after the scenario concludes. There may be narrative consequences, but not mechanical.

Mythos Challenges are a little different. As with Decapitated Starlet a Mythos Challenge can, on a Setback roll, result in Problems and Extra Problems. These Mythos Problems can be dealt with by spending Mythos-based special Edges but, if not dealt with before the end of the scenario, the character may suffer significant narrative consequences that must be dealt with before any other unresolved Problems are dealt with.

For example, in a Challenge where your character discovers blasphemous, Mythos-inspired artwork, rolls a Setback, and earns this Problem:

Censorious. Mythos Shock. To maintain your sense that the painting hasn't affected you, you must take any measures, no matter how mad, to destroy it once its usefulness to the case has ended. It doesn't count as admitting anything if you set it on fire and never, ever think about it again.

The character must, if this Shock isn't countered by an Edge before the end of the scenario, destroy the painting. The potential narrative consequences are significant, but then so is permanent incarceration in a place with soft walls and crayons.

I've rabbited on long enough, particularly on this Sunday of all Sundays. So, scores on doors: should you get Cthulhu Confidential?

Keepers definitely should. It's a very interesting sourcebook with three complicated, compelling scenarios, each of which has its own intriguing Noir protagonist. There's more than enough here to help you design complex narratives of your own. You'll want the .pdf as well, even if you're a die-hard book lover, since you'll need all the Generic Problems and Edges for easy printing.

Players should think very carefully about this. If you're into collecting all things Cthulhu then yes, please. However over 180 pages of this 311 page book are scenarios, and unless you're the kind of fella who likes spoilers you may find this troublesome. That said, once you've played through one or more of the scenarios this stops being an issue, at which point you should rush to your friendly local whateveritmaybe and buy this book.

It's a lot of fun, is what I'm saying.


Sunday, 18 December 2016

Why Vampires? (Night's Black Agents, Dracula Dossier)

Only a short one this week, as my Sunday is packed. At some point before the New Year I want to talk about Cthulhu Confidential, which I'm reading through in fits and starts. Probably next week ...

Vampires exist. What can they do? Who do they own? Where is safe? How much is legend, and what is the truth?

Edom ... reminded MI6 that they already had the perfect asset for retaliation: a superhuman killer who had spent decades of his life at war with Islam. And Dracula was completely deniable - he was downright fictional!

Is that the whole story, I wonder?

At some point Edom had to justify its dark web of batty assets to its paymasters, and if all it had to offer was a killer or killers, I wonder if Edom would have been tapped for the job. After all, killers are ten a penny. Even after you've gone through the official channels and secured SAS wetworkers there's always chancers like the legendary Increment out there, never mind a huge pool of off-the-books talent scattered all over Europe.

Dracula's killing edge is better than most, but you don't need a sledgehammer to crack walnuts and more often than not the 'terrorist cells' you're trying to break are a bunch of kids led on by the promises of senior members. There will be times when the threat's more severe, the plot more complex, but when the plan is 'drive a truck through a crowd' you're not in Blofeld territory any more. In such a world, what's needed?

The same thing the Village always needs: Information.  

Awareness allows Clairvoyance, or psychic remote viewing. It can also allow the vampire to see through the eyes of any human that drank its blood. Infection, according to the main book, leads to Dominance. It can also lead to Plague, but presumably Edom's keeping that bit quiet; no need to introduce bioterror into an already volatile mix. Invisibility is better than planting a bug. The asset just walks in, gets the information, and walks out again. Magic opens up all sorts of intelligence-gathering possibilities. Vampires with psychic powers or which can attack through dreams allow for remote targeting of opfor targets. Possession allows a vampiric operative to attend a clandestine meeting as one of the invited guests. Voice Mimicry allows the user to convince others she's a friend - perfect for telephone conversations or Skype, assuming the vampire can be conventionally recorded or transmitted.

If I were Edom's bigwigs, I wouldn't talk up the wetworking, plausibly deniable or not. I'd present MI6 with at least one and preferably more than one enemy cell all wrapped up, each of them infiltrated and drained by my existing Vampire asset - if I have one. If I don't, I point out prior cases in which Vampires use their abilities to infiltrate intelligence networks, emphasize that Edom already has counterintel techniques to prevent this happening to British networks, and suggest that bringing these superlative intelligence-gatherers on board is the perfect way to get the one thing every intelligence network is starved for: information.

If my Jacks can adopt some or all of these attributes through Seward Serum, I might also point out that so long as I have a source of serum we don't need these temperamental and erratic SBAs when we can do the job in-house. Just help us secure that source of serum, and we do the rest.

Oh, and that Village we've been building in Wales? Don't worry about that. Nothing to see here. Move along.

Talk soon!

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Not Quite Book Review Corner: The Ruins (Scott Smith)

I spent rather more time than I would have liked in hospital during my recent UK trip, but it gave me time to read a book I'd bought to entertain me on the flight: Scott Smith's The Ruins (2006). It was one of three I'd bought, the other two being a Michael Slade and a Jack Higgins. I don't look for aesthetic or intellectual entertainment when I fly; I want something interesting enough to make it worth my while turning pages, and that's it. It's different when you're comfortable, awake and alert, but those three things are not what flying is all about.

The Ruins was an unknown quantity. I didn't recognize the author. I later discovered he's the guy who wrote A Simple Plan (1993), a thriller I very much admire, but at the time the name Scott Smith plucked no forgotten strings of memory. The Ruins is his second, and to date he's only written two. The man does not believe in rushing things along.

He's an MFA Fine Arts who's got a few screenwriting credits behind him, and is currently working on Civil, a TV drama-cum-thriller-cum God Alone Knows in which nation-shattering violence breaks out after a hotly contested election. He seems to prefer obscurity; he's given few interviews and in those interviews he says little about how he works or what he's working on. He likes bookstores. So there's a plus.

The Ruins begins deep in Mexico's tourist heartland. Four Americans meet a German and three Greeks. The German has a problem; he and his brother fell out after the brother met a pretty archaeologist and the brother ran off to join her at some dig out in the boondocks. Now it's almost time for their flight home, and the brother hasn't come back. What, he asks the Americans, do they think he should do?

To them this all seems like a fantastic side adventure with a hint of illicit romance. Besides, going out to see some picturesque antiquities was on their To Do list, even if these particular antiquities seem to be a not very remarkable mine far from the comforts of civilization. So they pack a hearty picnic lunch, rent a taxi, and zoom off to the ruins. Ignoring the taxi driver's Borgo Pass-style warning - 'this place no good. Give me fifteen dollar, I take you somewhere better.' - they get off where they think the footpath to the ruins ought to be. There their problems begin.

The locals in the village nearby are as unfriendly as it is possible to be without actually shooting them. The locals pretend not to understand what they're talking about, and don't encourage them to stay. However by luck and some deductive reasoning they find the right footpath, which has been carefully camouflaged with leaves and brush. Following that path they find a pleasant hilltop covered with greenery and beautiful flowers, surrounded by a wide strip of what seems to be burnt out landscape, not unlike a moat cut out of the jungle. They can see what seems to be a tent at the top of the hill, presumably belonging to the archaeologists.

In short order the locals arrive, and they are not best pleased. Many of them are armed, and more are on the way. The leader seems to be about to let them go, but then one of the Americans accidentally sets foot on the flowery hillside. That contaminating foot is enough, and they're all ordered to climb the hill. No questions, no going back: climb.

Then things really get weird, but to go any further would involve major spoilers.

This, like Smith's previous novel, has also been made into a movie. While I have not seen that movie the trailer gives me no confidence whatsoever, and I'd avoid watching the film before reading the book as it might ruin things for you. Rotten Tomatoes gives it a pretty mixed rating, for what that's worth.

I like smart horror. By that I mean I like the characters to be strong characters who don't do anything dumb for reasons that are transparently plot related. Everyone has to behave in keeping with their character and everyone has to make reasonable decisions. Not necessarily correct decisions - in horror there aren't many of those - but reasonable according to the facts available at the time.

This is very smart horror. Even the locals, who might otherwise be faceless cyphers, are interesting, and behave very much in keeping with a group of people who've found themselves living next door to Satan's Left Buttock. Having found a way to keep the wicked emanations at bay they dedicate their lives to ensuring nobody goes near, and if somebody does, they make sure the unlucky wanderers never get out. Perfectly reasonable, under the circumstances. After all, we know what happens when you rely on the authorities to solve your problem for you.

Seldom have I read anything quite so much in the present tense. The only comparable I have is Andy McNab, and you know how I feel about him. Yet in this everything relentlessly flows from moment to moment, less like a narrative and more like a rising flood, carrying everything before it. Nothing in this novel happens without you silently witnessing it; there are no off-camera segues.

The antagonist is pleasingly Lovecraftian. By that I mean it is unknowable, alien, and malign. You get the sense that it's just biding its time up there on the hillside, waiting for the locals' guard to drop. It voraciously devours everything it can get - birds, animals, insects - and human targets are o-so-tasty, but perhaps a little large and feisty to be swarmed in a frontal assault. So it resorts to trickery and illusion to get the job done, luring them into dangerous situations where they can be picked off one by one.

Narratively it reminds me of John Wyndham and while some of you may be leaping towards a certain novel I'm actually thinking of the criticism levelled by Christopher Priest, who called Wyndham 'the master of the middle-class catastrophe.' The main characters are all nice college kids with money and all the nice things that money can buy. They've had good educations, they're smart, they can handle themselves in most situations and soon they'll be going off into the working world.

Here they are enjoying an exotic vacation. Here they are going off to rescue their friend's brother from a silly romantic misadventure. Here they are climbing a flower-covered hill, threatened with death if they try to come down again.

One of them thinks wistfully about her nice things, left in the hotel back in Cancun. Perhaps the maid will steal them.

It all speaks to a kind of invulnerability middle class Westerners think they enjoy. Nothing can seriously go wrong, not to them. After all, they're on vacation. They're having a good time. They just want to go out for the day, have a picnic, see some scenery and go home again. What's so difficult about that?

The other two books I bought for the trip are long gone. I don't believe in carrying excess baggage, and I brought too much stuff home with me to want to burden myself with even a fraction of a kilo's weight. I don't think the Harris even left Bermuda's airport; I dumped it for someone else to find, and same goes for the Slade. I believe in being a Johnny Appleseed of books, and English pubs are quite good places to spread the love.

I almost took the Smith to Dragonmeet to pass on to some unwitting host. I didn't. I almost passed it on some other way - after all, I had three days in London after Dragonmeet before getting on a plane.

It's with me now, on my desk in front of me.

You don't get rid of the good stuff.